|Bison in Bialowieza Photo by Magnus Elander|
From the end of the 12th century, the pagan tribal societies of the eastern Baltic (today Estonia, Latvia, western Lithuania, north-east Poland and the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast), became the targets of relentless crusades from the West. The conquered tribal territories were reorganised as Catholic polities called Livonia and Prussia and the native aristocracy was replaced by a theocracy, dominated by the Teutonic Order. They built impressive castles, the largest of which were effectively fortified monasteries.
The sustainability of the new regime depended on the exploitation of natural resources, particularly for food, fuel and building materials. To this end, the theocracy encouraged Catholic migrants from neighbouring German and Polish regions to settle the conquered territories.
Here we found the pollen record showed a drop in human activity and reforestation. This became known as the “Great Wilderness”. Fragments are still visible today, particularly in north-eastern Poland. Written sources and animal bones recovered from frontier castles indicate diverse wildlife: it is here that the last wild European aurochs and bison took refuge. Noticeable human impact on vegetation in the Great Wilderness largely dates from the 17th century."
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