- Woodland clearings were used in Mesolithic Europe roughly 7000-12000 years ago. The consensus is that these were used for hunting. But, we have only circumstantial evidence for that idea. In particular, we have no hard evidence that humans prepared animal food in or near these clearings.
- Our actual evidence for wood clearing use comes from ethnography: some recent premodern human populations burned down parts of forests to make larger grazing areas. But, other ethnographic evidence supports a non-economic origin to clearings.
- Yi-Fu Tuan rightly argues that past humans were afraid of wilderness, including in preliterate and nonurban societies.
- Recently, we learned that Mesolithic peoples moved around forests using established paths. The author proposes that this was due to fear of the forest. It could have been fear of wildlife, of spirits, or of getting lost.
- The author’s alternate theory of forest clearings:
1. Long terms paths form due to fear
2. People start concentrating activities near the paths.
This means we should consider that wilderness was a motivation, and that some clearings were formed merely where paths crossed and the concentration of activity moved the forest back.
This argument is heavy on speculation. And it’s fairly complex. If you have trouble understanding it, you should read the paragraph summaries above and make sure you understand the information presented.
The standard view is that woodland clearings were made by humans in order to hunt. If animals grazed in clearings, then they would be easy to see and to hunt.
But, we lack direct evidence for this standard view. So, the author launches into their speculative theory that clearings were formed where woodland paths met. Humans kept paths and clearings clear because we feared the forest.
Both theories rely entirely on circumstantial evidence, which mainly comes in the form of ethnography. That is to say, the study of recent human populations.
E.g. ethnography probably started 200 years ago. So, if someone writing in 1843 described the traditions of a premodern population, that would be ethnographic evidence. Studies of modern hunter gatherers would also be ethnographic. In general, ethnography involves the study of a population that exists at the time the researcher studies it.
Historical ethnography is therefore by definition largely impossible. Much as it would be nice to study how people lived in 782 AD, we don’t have time machines. So, our ethnographic data generally only starts from the time people actively started studying cultures.
This means we will never have direct ethnographic evidence about what Mesolithic humans did.
Want a free Reading Comp lesson?
Get a free sample of the Reading Comprehension Mastery Seminar. Learn tips for solving RC questions