Clearing dark Woods during the Neolithic of Central and North Europa

These are some heavy flint-axes from late Neolithic scandinavia, wich were used for wood-cleaning.

Europe has some of the highest cropland area in the world. Forest clearing in Europe has been documented as far back as the Neolithic culture some 7500 years ago, when forests were cleared for settlement, cultivation of crops, and grazing animals. Some traces of wood clearing are even present during the late Mesolithic. However, the pace and extent of deforestation increased greatly during the Middle Ages. In general, the area of European forests reached a low in the late 1600s and early 1700s. From the 1700s onward, forest cover has increased in many regions.

The origin of agriculture in the Near East was in a region where the wild ancestors of the cultivated plants grew in a more or less open landscape. The spread of agriculture to the northwest into Europe covered forested landscapes and therefore required clearing to practice agriculture. According to older suggestion, Neolithic agriculture was rather simple and hadn’t developed sophisticated methods of manuring and tillage.  According to these suggestions people had to shift their fields regularly to avoid bad harvests.

Research of the last decades however, showed, that the fertile soils of the loess belt in Central Europe, colonized during the Early Neolithic of Central Europe (about 5600 to 4300 B.C. cal.), allowed adequate yields for many years without manuring. Adequate yields in this case mean between five and eight dt/ha, as calculated for the Early Modern age three-field-system. Based on those yields are also quantitative models of Neolithic agriculture and nutrition. For these reasons permanent fields and settlements were postulated. Even the Earliest LBK settlements in Central Europe were located in relatively dry environments, on loess or chernozem soils (Schwarzerden). The association between LBK settlements and loess soils has long been established. The location on loess soils was important, as they were rich enough to be farmed continuously without being fertilized. LBK in general also made extensive use of the surrounding dense woodlands. Site catchment analyses at  Earliest LBK settlements suggest that fields were very close (<1 km) to the settlements. Little to nothing is known about their extent but they seem to have been protected by a complicated system of hedges. Undoubtedly, large areas of forests were cleared with flint and stone axes which modern experiments show were capable of being used for forest felling. Animal grazing, if intensive enough, would have thinned and ultimately eliminated forest in other areas.

There have been extensive studies on the original Vegetation of the loess, which must have been a thick woodland dominated by lime and elm and with such a dense crown space that undergrowth was restricted. It is supposed that in the moist valleys oak was more dominant, and undergrowth must have been denser and richer than on the slopes and plateaus. This country offered optimal conditions for agriculture in contrast to regions farther north that had only restricted natural fertility and would be exhausted after a few years.

In the late Neolithic however, between 4300 and 2300 B.C., people colonized new landscapes outside the loess belt, in the low-mountain region and in the former glaciated regions of the pre-alpine lowlands and those of northern Central Europe and southern Scandinavia. Pollen and macrofossil data from lake-shore settlements, peat and lake sediments of the northern pre-alpine lowlands indicate shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn agriculture for this period. The process continued unabated during the late Neolithic to early Bronze ages (3000 to 1000 BC). Charcoal layers and successive decreases in forest pollens, followed by increases in cereal and weed pollens in peat deposits, together with interbedded farming and clearing implements, leave one in no doubt about the sequence of events. Obviously the Late Neolithic agriculture was different from the Early Neolithic agriculture in the loess belt.

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