Despite the implementation of management plans, commercial tree species densities are declining in the forests of Central Africa. In the region, Cylicodiscus gabunensis Harms (Fabaceae-Caesalpinioideae; common name ‘okan’), is one such species most exploited, but its ecology remains poorly understood. The rarity of its regeneration in evergreen forest suggests that, like other commercial light-demanding species, the conditions that allowed populations to become established are no longer present. Using a combined archaeobotanical and pedological approach, the aim of this study is to identify the factors explaining the current distribution of C. gabunensis individuals at local scale. Within a plot of 1050 ha in a forest concession in south-eastern Gabon, we installed 40 archaeological pits equally divided between sites with and without C. gabunensis. The artefacts encountered were collected and analysed. Charcoal masses were quantified and 18 charcoals were dated. These ages were compared with the average age of the tree population, using growth data from 50 individuals and heartwood dating from 4 individuals. An analysis of the physico-chemical properties of the soil was carried out on composite samples from each archaeological pit. Pottery sherds were found in two pits while charcoal was present in all pits, suggesting widespread human occupation and fire throughout the study area. Human occupation occurred in two phases: between 2480 and 1010 BP and from 590 to 80 BP. The abandonment of agricultural land at the end of this second phase could coincide with the establishment of the C. gabunensis cohort whose average age has been estimated at between 90 and 148 years. Soil analyses showed that C. gabunensis individuals were located on soils that were comparatively richer in element potentially toxic (Fe) and in some plant nutrients (K, P) and total nitrogen. The current scarcity of young trees argues for the implementation of a silviculture that integrates the light requirements of the species as well as the chemical fertility of the soil.
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