Climate and landscape changes over 10,000 years

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From Arctic tundra to tidy field

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Denmark’s most obvious geological border runs through the hills of central Jutland. The border marks the extent of the ice during the last Ice Ace, 120,000 to 12,000 years ago. The entire surface of eastern Denmark has been formed by glaciers that dragged various types of soil in over the landscape, whereas western Denmark was not covered by ice. That is why eastern Denmark can be considered “made for agriculture”, while western Denmark is better suited to raising animals.
Bedrock is visible in Denmark only on the island of Bornholm, making the island, which resembles Sweden, a unique national landsape.

When the ice retreated over Denmark some 16,000 years ago, plants began to grow in the barren tundra, and reindeer soon followed. The first people to arrive in Denmark during the period were hunters from the Hamburg Culture, traces of whom have been found at Sølbjerg, on the southern island of Lolland.
With the arrival of a milder climate, forest soon began growing across most of the country. Large mammals such as bison and horse, followed by aurochs and elk, began to migrate northward to a land that at that time was much larger, thanks to sea levels some 100 metres lower than current levels. Zealand was connected to Sweden, the Baltic Sea was a lake, and the Great and Little Belts were wide rivers. The period from 9000 to 6400 BC is known as the Maglemose Period, and takes its name from the modern day village of Maglemose, Zealand, where the tools of hunting peoples were found.

Rising sea levels
Between 7000 and 3900 BC, temperatures continued to rise, reaching some three degrees higher than today’s average. The ice of the Northern Hemisphere melted and water levels rose faster than the land did. Denmark was transformed into a land of islands, and what were once streams became fjords incising their way deep into the land. The coast was a cornucopia of fish, shellfish, birds and seals. Inland, the forest grew thicker as trees such as basswood, oak, elm, ash and alder took hold. Various types of deer and wild boars began migrating from the south around 8000 BC. Near Kongemose in central Zealand, and Ertebølle in Himmerland, Jutland, archaeologists have uncovered tools, settlements and middens and use the place names to refer to last of the Mesolithic peoples. The age is also known as the Atlantic Period, and is the period when the Stone Age sea reached its highest level.

Clearing the land
Agriculture and the use of burn-beat cultivation and domestication arrived from the south around 3950 BC. Stone Age farmers cleared forests that slowly became grain fields and clearings where grass and herbs grew. The landscape was cleared most in western Jutland, where a heath began to emerge. Eastern Denmark was still sparsely populated, and forest remained dominant. Stone Age diets changed dramatically with the introduction of farming. Hunting, fishing and the gathering of shellfish, fruit, berries, mushrooms and nuts remained a welcome substitute for the agricultural crops.

Bronze Age landscape
Population continued to grow during the Bronze Age (1800-500 BC). Widespread deforestation and the increasing area covered by fields, heaths and plains resulted in a much more open landscape. Studies show that the landscape we recognise today took form in the Bronze Age. Forests remained only in hilly areas that were hard to cultivate. Heaths grew in poor, sandy soil, while farmland and grasslands were concentrated in areas that had level terrain and fertile, clay-rich soil.

Manure on the field
During the Iron and the Viking Ages (500 BC-1050 AD) farming continued to gain popularity over animal husbandry. The beech became the dominant tree in forests, and farmers were now planting rye, flax and hemp. Excavations reveal traces of fenced-in villages with multiple farms and increasing room for pens to hold animals. Animal manure was spread as fertiliser, creating an important agricultural link between field and pasture.

Mobile villages
If a village was plundered, torched, polluted or struck by illness, residents moved, though not far. Because the land had been cultivated, and society organised into “chieftain territories”, people normally only moved a few hundred metres in order to allow them to continue to use areas that belonged to them. The introduction of Christianity in the 11th century put an end to the moves. Many of the villages that formed around churches in the Iron and Viking Ages continue to exist in some form today and were in a sense the mothers of modern-day cities and towns.

Wheeled plough revolution
In the late Viking and early Middle Ages, from around 900 to 1300 AD, temperatures rose again. Hundreds of small villages were founded near newly planted outlying fields and in deforested areas. The introduction of the wheeled plough revolutionised farming, and saw village land rearranged into long strips characterised by deep furrows and high ridges of overturned sod. By the end of the Middle Ages, agricultural land made up nearly 50 percent of the most fertile areas, 30 percent in forested areas and only 15 percent in sandy heaths.

The Little Ice Age
The early 15th century was marked by an extended period of cold weather that followed on the heels of the great plagues that killed nearly a third of the population a century before. The period from 1550 to 1750 is known as the Little Ice Age, and saw crops fail for several years in a row, creating an abysmal crisis that wiped out populations in many places throughout Europe. The Little Ice Age reached its nadir during the mid-17th century, and saw Denmark’s territorial waterways freeze solid. The best-known incident occurred in 1658, when Swedish troops marched across the frozen Great Belt. Even though there were some banner years during the period, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that temperatures had rebounded.

Straight as a ruler
The widespread land reforms around the year 1800 laid the groundwork for a new landscape dictated by the surveyor’s ruler and intended to make it possible for private entrepreneurs to improve on it. The heaths of western Jutland were ploughed under and fenced in or planted with fir trees. The final remains of old-growth forests were replanted so as to make them easier to forest or to facilitate clear-cutting. Streams were straightened out, meadows, bogs and lakes all were drained, and fjords were dammed up. Many new crops, such as clover and turnips, came to take on major importance. The landscape had been almost totally cultivated, and to this day Denmark retains the highest percent of agricultural land use in Europe.