Recent studies based on trace gas mixing ratios in ice cores and charcoal data indicate that biomass burning emissions over the past millennium exceeded contemporary emissions by up to a factor of 4 for certain time periods. This is surprising because various sources of biomass burning are linked with population density, which has increased over the past centuries. We have analysed how emissions from several landscape biomass burning sources could have fluctuated to yield emissions that are in correspondence with recent results based on ice core mixing ratios of carbon monoxide (CO) and its isotopic signature measured at South Pole station (SPO). Based on estimates of contemporary landscape fire emissions and the TM5 chemical transport model driven by present-day atmospheric transport and OH concentrations, we found that CO mixing ratios at SPO are more sensitive to emissions from South America and Australia than from Africa, and are relatively insensitive to emissions from the Northern Hemisphere. We then explored how various landscape biomass burning sources may have varied over the past centuries and what the resulting emissions and corresponding CO mixing ratio at SPO would be, using population density variations to reconstruct sources driven by humans (e.g., fuelwood burning) and a new model to relate savanna emissions to changes in fire return times. We found that to match the observed ice core CO data, all savannas in the Southern Hemisphere had to burn annually, or bi-annually in combination with deforestation and slash and burn agriculture exceeding current levels, despite much lower population densities and lack of machinery to aid the deforestation process. While possible, these scenarios are unlikely and in conflict with current literature. However, we do show the large potential for increased emissions from savannas in a pre-industrial world. This is mainly because in the past, fuel beds were probably less fragmented compared to the current situation; satellite data indicates that the majority of savannas have not burned in the past 10 yr, even in Africa, which is considered "the burning continent". Although we have not considered increased charcoal burning or changes in OH concentrations as potential causes for the elevated CO concentrations found at SPO, it is unlikely they can explain the large increase found in the CO concentrations in ice core data. Confirmation of the CO ice core data would therefore call for radical new thinking about causes of variable global fire rates over recent centuries.