Central Africa includes the world's second largest rainforest block. The ecology of the region remains poorly understood, as does its vegetation and archaeological history. However, over the past 20 years, multidisciplinary scientific programmes have enhanced knowledge of old human presence and palaeoenvironments in the forestry block of Central Africa. This first regional synthesis documents significant cultural changes over the past five millennia and describes how they are linked to climate. It is now well documented that climatic conditions in the African tropics underwent significant changes throughout this period and here we demonstrate that corresponding shifts in human demography have had a strong influence on the forests. The most influential event was the decline of the strong African monsoon in the Late Holocene, resulting in serious disturbance of the forest block around 3500 BP. During the same period, populations from the north settled in the forest zone; they mastered new technologies such as pottery and fabrication of polished stone tools, and seem to have practised agriculture. The opening up of forests from 2500 BP favoured the arrival of metallurgist populations that impacted the forest. During this long period (2500-1400 BP), a remarkable increase of archaeological sites is an indication of a demographic explosion of metallurgist populations. Paradoxically, we have found evidence of pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) cultivation in the forest around 2200 BP, implying a more arid context. While Early Iron Age sites (prior to 1400 BP) and recent pre-colonial sites (two to eight centuries BP) are abundant, the period between 1600 and 1000 BP is characterized by a sharp decrease in human settlements, with a population crash between 1300 and 1000 BP over a large part of Central Africa. It is only in the eleventh century that new populations of metallurgists settled into the forest block. In this paper, we analyse the spatial and temporal distribution of 328 archaeological sites that have been reliably radiocarbon dated. The results allow us to piece together changes in the relationships between human populations and the environments in which they lived. On this basis, we discuss interactions between humans, climate and vegetation during the past five millennia and the implications of the absence of people from the landscape over three centuries. We go on to discuss modern vegetation patterns and African forest conservation in the light of these events.
Keywords: Congo–Ogooué basin; Holocene; archaeology; climatic change; palaeoenvironment; vegetation.