An increasingly accepted paradigm in conservation attributes valued modern ecological conditions to past human activities. Disturbances, including prescribed fire, are therefore used by land managers to impede forest development in many potentially wooded landscapes under the interpretation that openland habitats were created and sustained by human-set fire for millennia. We test this paradigm using palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data from New England. Despite the region’s dense population, anthropogenic impacts on the landscape before European contact were limited, and fire activity was independent of changes in human populations. Whereas human populations reached maxima during the Late Archaic (5,000-3,000 yr bp) and Middle-Late Woodland (1,500-500 yr bp) periods, lake-sediment charcoal records indicate elevated fire activity only during the dry early Holocene (10,000-8,000 yr bp) and after European colonization. Pollen data indicate closed forests from 8,000 yr bp to the onset of European deforestation, and archaeological evidence of pre-contact horticultural activity is sparse. Climate largely controlled fire severity in New England during the postglacial interval, and widespread openlands developed only after deforestation for European agriculture. Land managers seeking to emulate pre-contact conditions should de-emphasize human disturbance and focus on developing mature forests; those seeking to maintain openlands should apply the agricultural approaches that initiated them four centuries ago.