• Tropical rain forest;
  • biodiversity;
  • shifting cultivation;
  • historical land use;
  • Africa;
  • Cameroon

Abstract Aim Tropical rain forests are often regarded as pristine and undisturbed by humans. In Central Africa, community-wide disturbances by natural causes are rare and therefore current theory predicts that natural gap phase dynamics structure tree species composition and diversity. However, the dominant tree species in many African forests recruit poorly, despite the presence of gaps. To explain this, we studied the disturbance history of a species-rich and structurally complex rain forest.

Location Lowland rain forest in Southern Cameroon.

Methods We identified the recruitment conditions of trees in different diameter classes in 16 ha of species-rich and structurally complex ‘old growth’ rain forest. For the identification of recruitment preference we used independent data on the species composition along a disturbance gradient, ranging from shifting cultivation fields (representing large-scale disturbance), to canopy gaps and old growth forest.

Results In nine of sixteen 1-ha forest plots the older trees preferred shifting cultivation fields for recruitment while younger trees preferred gaps and closed forest conditions. This indicates that these nine sites once experienced large-scale disturbances. Three lines of evidence suggest that historical agricultural use is the most likely disturbance factor: (1) size of disturbed and undisturbed patches, (2) distribution of charcoal and (3) historical accounts of human population densities.

Main conclusions Present-day tree species composition of a structurally complex and species-rich Central African rain forest still echoes historical disturbances, most probably caused by human land use between three to four centuries ago. Human impact on African rain forest is therefore, contrary to common belief, an issue not of the last decades only. Insights in historical use will help to get a more balanced view of the ‘pristine rain forest’, acknowledging that the dualism between ‘old growth’ and ‘secondary’ forest may be less clear than previously thought.