Wetlands in Europe at the dawn of history

Wetlands in Europe at the dawn of history used to be one of the dominant ecosystems. After the last glaciation retreated, they covered extensive areas and significantly contributed to maintaining of the continental water balance. 

Wetlands already in the past were important source of the water that supported all forms of life. Even in last decades they were one of the most common ecosystems in Europe. But today their number and quality decreased.

Wetlands are ecosystems which are dramatically impacted by humans. Human’s impact started already several thousand years ago, right after the last glaciation retreated.

Wetlands in the past

The evidence of the first marshes, forest swamps and finally wetlands extend back to the Ordovician Period (485.4 million to 443.8 million years ago). That was the period when the first terrestrial plants, dependent on wet substrates, began to colonize the land.

Wetland ecosystems at that time were well adapted to low-oxygen and low-nutrient conditions, so common in the past. That led also to the evolution of fens (peat marshes) and forest mires (peat forests). 

The differentiation of wetland habitats created varied niches that influenced variation of the first invertebrate, adaptations of their skeleton and muscles that enabled proper support and movement on land. Peatlands surfaces were supplied mostly only with rain and snow. Later on, also widespread peatlands evolved, with the earliest mires.  

Period after last ice age

Most European wetlands were formed at the end of the last glaciation about 14 000 – 12 000 years ago. The very first large wetlands were formed when glaciers dammed rivers, scoured valleys, and reworked floodplains. Countless smaller wetlands were formed when large blocks of the continental ice left behind by receding glaciers and formed pits and depressions in the land.

Hollows were filled by gravel, sediments and organic layers.These hollows were filled by gravel, sediments and organic layers in which carbon was fixed, received directly from the atmosphere. All necessary elements for creation of wetlands were in place. 

Wetlands and man

The period of the glaciers retreat, was also the time when the man pop up on the scene. That was a time the dawn of a new era when the first signs of land use were recorded. The name of that era was the Holocene, also called the “age of man.” Since that time the wetlands are linked with the existence of the man throughout the following ages.

Wetlands are ecosystems which were heavily impacted by man since the beginning of his presence in Europe. The men for long centuries pretty much ignored the benefits what they offered for their everyday life.

Wetlands have played an important role throughout human history. They helped to promote the development of civilized communities in flooded and fertile floodplains. Evidence of the first signs of the use of wetlands, which among other, provided food for humans, goes back long before the era of written historical records.


History of wetlands is reaching very far to the Earth history. During the geological cycles they have been completely damaged and recreated again.  That cycles happened due to the climate changes and repeating glaciation of Europe.

From geological time perspective, modern wetlands were developed not long ago. Since the last continental glaciations retreated and climate in Europe getting warmer, becoming more wet and the flooded part of Europe becomes covered by wetlands.

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