This chapter sets out to give a historical overview of the African rain forest from its origins, towards the end of the Cretaceous period. The areas around the Gulf of Guinea, in particular from Ivory Coast to Nigeria and especially Cameroon, Gabon and Congo, appear to have been already occupied at this time by wet tropical forest formations mainly composed of Angiosperms which were then becoming established. In the course of the Tertiary period the combined effect of the equator being situated further north than now and the development of the Antarctic ice cap favoured the development of wet tropical conditions over a large part of North Africa which in turn led to the extension of tropical forest to various sites on the shores of the Tethys Sea. There were probably at this time common taxa and similar vegetation patterns stretching from the Gulf of Guinea to the Tethys Sea.
Towards the end of the Tertiary, the equator reached its present position and the northern hemisphere ice caps appeared, and these phenomena resulted in the disappearance of the forest formations spread across the north of Africa, and the concentration of these formations near the equatorial zone around the Gulf of Guinea and in the Congo–Zaïre basin. From 800 000 years ago onwards the marked glacial variations at middle and high latitudes in both hemispheres, with a periodicity of about 100 000 years determined by the orbital variations of the earth around the sun, lowered temperatures in equatorial areas and brought arid climates at times of maximum glacial extension. The most arid periods resulted in the fragmentation of the forest cover, and the forest biotopes and their biodiversity were preserved in a series of refugia. The lowering of temperatures also resulted in the extension of montane flora to low altitudes, with migration of montane flora and fauna between main mountain ranges. These compounded phenomena of isolation and migration, probably involving genie exchange, must have resulted in numerous speciation phenomena. Subsequently, such montane flora or fauna became isolated on mountain areas during periods of maximum warming, in the last instance in the course of the Holocene, when a vast forest cover became re-established from Guinea westwards, and to the East as far as the Lake Victoria area. The phases of maximum fragmentation, which appear to have been connected with only the coldest periods – in the last instance during the second part of isotopic stages 6 (from c. 160 to 130 000 years) and 2 (from c. 24 to 12000 years BP) – relate to less than 10% of the last 800 000 years, and the phases of maximum forest extension would likewise appear to be less than 10% of the period. The remaining 80–90% of the time relates to ‘intermediate situations’ which varied from period to period, and these intermediate extension situations seem to have been the norm over the larger part of the Quaternary, rather than the present situation which is closer to a situation of maximum extension.