Human activity has undoubtedly had a major impact on Holocene forested ecosystems, with the concurrent expansion of plants and animals associated with cleared landscapes and pasture, also known as 'culture-steppe'. However, this anthropogenic perspective may have underestimated the contribution of autogenic disturbance (e.g. wind-throw, fire), or a mixture of autogenic and anthropogenic processes, within early Holocene forests. Entomologists have long argued that the north European primary forest was probably similar in structure to pasture woodland. This idea has received support from the conservation biologist Frans Vera, who has recently strongly argued that the role of large herbivores in maintaining open forests in the primeval landscapes of Europe has been seriously underestimated. This paper reviews this debate from a fossil invertebrate perspective and looks at several early Holocene insect assemblages. Although wood taxa are indeed important during this period, species typical of open areas and grassland and dung beetles, usually associated with the dung of grazing animals, are persistent presences in many early woodland faunas. We also suggest that fire and other natural disturbance agents appear to have played an important ecological role in some of these forests, maintaining open areas and creating open vegetation islands within these systems. More work, however, is required to ascertain the role of grazing animals, but we conclude that fossil insects have a significant contribution to make to this debate. This evidence has fundamental implications in terms of how the palaeoecological record is interpreted, particularly by environmental archaeologists and palaeoecologists who may be more interested in identifying human-environment interactions rather than the ecological processes which may be preserved within palaeoecological records.