Original Article

Helgoland Marine Research

, Volume 59, Issue 1, pp 2-8

First online:

History of human settlement, cultural change and interference with the marine environment


Humans have been present in the Wadden Sea area since the end of the last ice age, but their perception of and interference with their marine environment has changed over time. In this paper, I will give an overview on the interactions between man and nature since the 6th millennium B.C., on the opportunities for human settlement as well as on restrictions posed by the maritime environment. Only after many centuries of passive adaptation did the local farming population begin to modify their immediate surroundings. They made a living as cattle breeders, supplemented this with fishing, hunting, weaving, salt production and peat digging. Efforts to transform the agricultural landscape did not start before the 11th century A.D., when the first dikes and canals were constructed. The consequences were profound. By the end of the Middle Ages, the dikes had become totally indispensable. The land under cultivation was perceived as a sacred inner world, conflicting sharply with the marine environment outside its flood-gates. This essentially dichotomous world-view held out until the 19th and early 20th centuries. As we will see, however, the actual settlement history had been marked by various gains and losses, by successes as well as by setbacks. Not only did humans destroy valuable natural resources, but they also created alternative habitats for novel species. I conclude that the initial tendency towards increasing natural and cultural diversity has been reversed during the last few centuries. Yet, mounting conservationist concerns may cause a turning-point.


Wadden Sea Coastal wetlands Man-made landscape Man and nature History