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For a minimum of 12,000 years, American Indians had been skillfully manipulating the environment, primarily with fire. Human activity was unique during each cultural period, and books could be written on the various periods. The landscapes that the first Europeans encountered were not undisturbed, dense forests as many people today envision. Knowledgeable humans skillfully modified the landscapes to support a population numbering in the millions at the time of European contact. Pollen analysis and historical eyewitness accounts depict a disturbed landscape consisting of a mosaic of open and uneven-aged forests, native settlements, agricultural land, and prairies, which were the direct result of American Indian activity and natural disturbances.
During the long duration of human history in the Americas, the natives developed intimate understanding of the land, forest, plants, and animals. They domesticated plants that are still widely used in agriculture throughout the world. Hudson (1976) estimates that southeastern Indians may have used as many as 500 species of plants for medicinal purposes and that they were successful for treating medical problems. The natives had developed food procurement methods based on seasonality of resources and planned their societies around knowledge of resource availability. Continuous and intimate observations of natural cycles allowed them to understand the complex workings of their ecosystems. Natives were well aware of land management activities that produced abundant fruits, nuts, and wildlife forage in specific locales.
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