In studies on natural dynamics, biodiversity and reference conditions legacies of preindustrial human land use are often neglected. In this study, using archaeology and dendrochronology combined with field surveys on present forest characteristics, we assessed the naturalness of a protected forest landscape and examined the role of indigenous peoples in shaping forest structure in the past. Our results show that the studied Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) forest conforms to the generally accepted impression of pristine forests and that it has a long history of human utilization. Areas with human presence over long time periods, especially in and near settlements, show significant differences in current forest characteristics compared with the rest of the landscape: the forest is younger (mean age 140-190years compared with >300 years), the volumes of deadwood lower (8-13m3·ha-1 compared with >20 m3·ha-1), and the tree species composition is substantially different from the surrounding forest. We suggest that these disparities are strongly linked to past land use and that indigenous people can alter ecosystems substantially and that the legacies of their activity may last for centuries. Consequently, in ecological research and conservation strategies, forest characteristics should always be considered in the light of their historical context. © 2010 National Research Council of Canada, NCR Research Press. Abstract reproduced by permission.