Temporal Evolution of the European Landscape

The first hominids reached Europe from Africa in the Early Pleistocene, some 1.2–1.1 million years ago (Carbonell et al. 2008), while modern humans colonized the continent between 46,000 BP and 41,000 BP (Mellars 2006). The appropriation of new land coincided with changes in the European landscape. Nomadic huntergatherers started to actively manage their ecosystem with the use of fire during the Pleistocene: what started as a domestic tool (e.g. for cooking, heating, and for protection from predators) also became useful to draw game to hunting grounds, to clear travel routes, and to open space for grazers (Daniau et al. 2010; Kaplan et al. 2010; Pfeiffer et al. 2013).

The development of agriculture was the next step in humans' appropriation and management of their environment (Pereira et al. 2012). The spread of agriculture from the northern Levant and northern Mesopotamian area towards Europe has been calculated to have started between 11,550 and 9000 BP and expanded at a rate of 0.6 to 1.3 km/year, with agriculture reaching north-western Europe in 3000 years (Pinhasi et al. 2005; Ruddiman 2013). Such spread of agriculture led to a fivefold increase in the human population (Gignoux et al. 2011), which had considerable consequences on the landscape. Several models have been designed to investigate the historical evolution of this human impact. Models that do not assume a direct linear link between human density and deforestation, but also consider other factors, such as technological change, show that the rate of land appropriation was much higher in the distant than in the recent past (Ruddiman 2013; Kaplan et al. 2010). First of all, as time passed and deforestation occurred, less and less forest was left to clear. Most of all, technological improvements allowed people to produce the same amount of food on less land, which contradicts a direct link between population density and deforestation (Ruddiman 2013). Following these non-linear concepts, Kaplan et al. (2010) presented model scenarios of Holocene anthropogenic land cover change. At 8000 BP, only Mesopotamia and Turkey were showing signs of human use of the land, but by the beginning of the Iron Age at 3000 BP, up to 40 % of European land could have been cleared for extensive agriculture and pastures (Fig. 8.1). Between 8000 and 3000 BP, Kaplan et al (2010) suggest that land use in Western Europe ranged from 5.5 to 6.5 ha per capita and was relatively stable.

Fig. 8.1 Anthropogenic land cover change in Europe over the Holocene. Intensive land use includes land completely deforested and used for agriculture and pasture, while extensive land use includes forest-pasture, coppice and other managed forestlands. Open rangeland occurs on land that is either too cold or too dry for non-irrigated agricultural land uses. Land use is driven by estimates of past population at the country-level. (Based on Kaplan et al. 2009, 201O; Kaplan 2012) By 2500 BP, increasing populations in most of Western Europe triggered intensification of land use (Fig. 8.1) and decrease in per capita values. Later, decreases in population resulted in major land abandonment episodes, during the Migration Period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and after the Black Death epidemic of AD 1350. By AD 1850, the latest preindustrial time, most of the European landscapes usable for intensive crop or pasture were deforested, and land use had dropped to values close to 0.5 ha per capita.

After the Industrial Revolution, the relationship between population and land use had become largely uncoupled. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, these “forest transitions” (e.g. Mather et al. 1998) led to abandonment of unproductive agricultural and pasture land in most European countries. Since the early 1960s, the rural population decreased by 17 % in Europe (FAOSTAT 2010), with repercussions for agricultural land-use, and both are projected to continue decreasing in the decades to come. By 2030, up to 15 % of the land cultivated in 2000 could be abandoned (e.g. Verburg and Overmars 2009; Eickhout et al. 2007) which represents 10–29 million ha of land. The areas facing the greatest likelihood of rural abandonment are remote and/or mountain areas, classified as “least favored”, with marginal value for agriculture (e.g. MacDonald et al. 2000). With the withdrawal of human activities, those abandoned areas are often left without the artificial disturbances that had replaced the natural ones, centuries or millennia ago.

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