At the height of the last Ice Age, the plant landscape was similar to the tundra we know today, with no trees other than in a few rare sheltered areas.

When postglacial warming began to take effect, the tree cover spread northwards from southern Europe and from those refuge areas. A "vanguard" forest of pine and birch emerged and mixed oak woodland combining our most common deciduous tree species soon began to develop.

The forest started to spread throughout middle Europe, except in the uplands and flood valleys (natural meadows) and in exposed coastal areas (on some shores, the forest even grew "right up to the shore line", as can still be seen in some places).

However, the primary forest was very different from the woodlands which have been managed and forested since the Middle-Ages. Only a few well preserved woodlands of Central Europe or Great-Britain convey some impression of the early forest and of its tree species.

Tundra landscape, Hudson Bay (Quebec, Canada).

The Paleolithic hunter-gatherers adapted to this dramatic change in their environment. Their successors from the Mesolithic lived in harmony with this forest environment as it provides game and plants.
The Neolithic farmers, who unlike their predecessors, were not great hunters, saw the forest neither as a shelter nor as a source of food, but as an environment to conquer. For them, the forest was :
hostile (bears could still be found in Brittany during the Neolithic);
a source of land for the expansion of cultivation and pastures;
a source of wood, a multi-purpose material (used from house carpentry to simple domestic objects via scaffoldings and other devices used in the building of megaliths).
Specific woodwork tools were developed: polished stone axes and adzes were produced and exchanged on a large scale, as illustrated by those which originated from the dolerite quarries at Plussulien, in the Côtes-d'Armor department.
As a consequence, the forest environment quickly deteriorated. In some areas, the deterioration can actually be traced, century after century.
The landscape changes can be retraced using several methods, belonging to three different scientific fields:
  • palynology, 
  • dendrology, 
  • pedology.
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An aspect of temperate primary forest (New Forest, southern England).

Experimental felling of a willow with a polished stone ax.