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Had the first descriptions of North America occurred 18,000 years ago, our impression of the vegetation would be very different from that which was recorded 500 years ago by early European explorers. Vegetation 18,000 years ago was radically different than at present (fig. 24.1 and fig. 24.2). How do we know this? The information used to compile the story has many sources. Since no one was around to leave a written record for most of the time, we must depend on science to weave the picture of events over this long period of time. Written historical records began after 1492. Eyewitness descriptions of Amerindians, their culture, the wildlife, and the landscapes they lived on have only been available for 500 years.
Archaeologists have been instrumental in developing knowledge of past human cultures. Their discoveries allow us to see how people lived and interacted with their environments. Paleoecologists have found undisturbed natural ponds, bogs, and other undisturbed wetlands to sample pollen grains deposited over thousands of years. Ecologists and botanists use this information to determine the climatic conditions necessary to support the various species of plants identified from pollen samples. Other ecologists study fire behavior and how fire affects plants and wildlife. Geologists add to our historical understanding by studying landscape and climatic changes related to the movement of glaciers. After the arrival of Europeans, eyewitness descriptions of the landscape and its inhabitants offer a resource rich in information. The combination of all of this professional knowledge is needed to tell this story.
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