Alexander von Humboldt is a key figure in the history of ecology and biogeography who contributed to shape what is today ecology, as well as the environmentalist movement. His observation that the world’s vegetation varies systematically with climate was one of his many contributions to science. Here, we question to what extent Humboldt’s view biased our vision of nature. The current emphasis on the role of climate and soils in ecological and evolutionary studies, and the emphasis on forests as the potential and most important vegetation, suggests that we still view nature through the eyes of Humboldt. Over the last 20 years, diverse studies have shown that many open non‐forested ecosystems (savannas, grasslands, and shrublands) cannot be predicted by climate and are ancient and diverse systems maintained by fire and/or vertebrate herbivory. Paleoecological and phylogenetic studies have shown the key role of these plant consumers at geological time scales. This has major implications for how we understand and manage our ecosystems. Synthesis. We need to consciously probe the long‐standing idea that climate and soils are the only major factors shaping broad‐scale patterns in nature. We propose to move beyond the legacy of Humboldt by embracing fire and large mammal herbivory as additional key factors in explaining the ecology and evolution of world vegetation.