Paleoecological analysis using complementary indicators of vegetation and soil can provide spatially explicit information on ecological processes influencing trajectories of long-term ecosystem change. Here we document the structure and dynamics of an old-growth woodland before and after its inception 1000 years ago. We infer vegetation and soil characteristics from size and age distributions of black spruce (Picea mariana (Mill.) B.S.P.), soil properties, plant fossils, and paleosols. Radiocarbon ages of charcoal on the ground and in the soil indicate that the fire return interval was approximately 300 years between 2750 and 1000 cal. yr BP. No fire evidence was found before and after this period despite the presence of spruce since 4200 cal. yr BP. The size structures of living and dead spruce suggest that the woodland is in equilibrium with present climate in absence of fire. Tree establishment and mortality occurred regularly since the last fire event around 950 cal. yr BP. Both layering and occasional seeding have contributed to stabilize the spatial distribution of spruce over the past 1000 years. Since initial afforestation, soil development has been homogenized by the changing spatial distribution of spruce following each fire. We conclude that the history of the woodland is characterized by vegetation shifts associated with fire and soil disturbances and by millennial-scale maintenance of the woodland's structure despite changing climatic conditions.
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