Too often, wilderness conservation ignores a temporal perspective greater than the past 50 years, yet a long-term perspective (centuries to millennia) reveals the dynamic nature of many ecosystems. Analysis of fossil pollen, charcoal and stable isotopes, combined with historical analyses and archaeology can reveal how ongoing interactions between climatic change, human activities and other disturbances have shaped today's landscapes over thousands of years. This interdisciplinary approach can inform wilderness conservation and also contribute to interpreting current trends and predicting how ecosystems might respond to future climate change. In this paper, we review literature that reveals how increasing collaboration among palaeoecologists, archaeologists, historians, anthropologists and ecologists is improving understanding of ecological complexity. Drawing on case studies from forested and non-forested ecosystems in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Australia, we discuss how this integrated approach can inform wilderness conservation and ecosystem management. © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/CNRS.