Module One

If Trees Could Talk Modules

American Prehistory: 8000 Years of Forest Management



American Prehistory has students study the evidence of 8000 years of Native American prehistoric land use practices. By analyzing images of Native American material culture, students will understand how artifacts and architecture reveal environmental attitudes of the culture. Students also will learn about the difficulties historians and other scholars face when attempting to study people who had no written language.

Image Caption: A Potawatomi woman in Kansas strips bark from a living elm tree. First a serrated ring is cut around the tree, then strips are peeled off with the aid of a wedge or ax. Photo courtesy of Native American Architecture, Peter Nabokov, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 62.


  • The student will understand the patterns of indigenous societies in the Americas before the Columbian voyages. (Era 1, Standard 1)
  • Social Studies

  • The student will explain and give examples of how language, literature, the arts, architecture, other artifacts, traditions, beliefs, values, and behaviors contribute to the development and transmission of culture. (Standard 1: Culture)
  • The student will draw upon historical knowledge during the examination of social issues and develop the habits of mind that historians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences employ to study the past and its relationship to the present in the United States and other societies. (Standard 2: Time, Continuity and Change)




For Day 1 activity: Make copies of the essay "American Prehistory: 8000 Years of Forest Management" for each student in your classroom. Next make copies of Worksheet 1 and Worksheet 2 for each student.

Day 2 activity: Make copies of Detecting Prehistory and Worksheet 3 for each student. Pre-class preparation: Arrange four tables or four clusters of desks within the classroom. Place one 8"x12" colored category topic card on or above each table or desk cluster. The category topic cards, each a different color, are entitled: Archaeologists, Anthropologists, Geographers, and Historians. Print each of the category topics on 4"x6" unlined note cards. (The total number of 4"x6" cards represents the total number of students in your class). The 4"x6" note card color for each category topic should match that of the larger 8"x12" card. For example, if the 8"x12" anthropology topic card is blue, the 4"x6" anthropology cards also should be blue.

Day 3 activity: Make copies of Eyewitness Accounts and Worksheet 4 for each student.

Day 4 activity: Make copies of "The Legend of the Cedar" for each student and Worksheet 5 for each student group (groups of 3-4).


Class Extensions

Use this link to locate a Native American tribe in your geographic vicinity. Contact a tribe near your school to discuss the possibility of arranging for a guest speaker to make a presentation to your class that would help them learn more about Native American culture and land use practices, past and present.

Use this link to help you locate a nearby museum specializing in or containing extensive exhibits on Native American history. Plan a trip for students to a museum so that they can experience Native American culture in an educationally rich setting. If possible, contact the museum educator of the institution about the possibility of special programming for your students.

Use this link to find the nearest archaeological park. Since students learned about the importance of archaeology in the study of prehistory, visiting an actual Native American site will help reinforce what they just learned and also will serve as a real world historical connection.

Team Teaching Possibilities

Technology: Instead of having students complete Worksheet 1 on the sheet provided, ask them to design and complete their own table in Microsoft Word or worksheet in Microsoft Excel outlining the significant information contained in the essay.

English: Have students use a library or the internet to find a Native American legend focusing on an aspect of nature. Ask students to compare and contrast the legend they located with the “Legend of the Cedar Tree.”

Math: have students investigate how prehistoric people used math in their lives. Additionally, ask them to locate a picture or description of a prehistoric artifact that utilized mathematics in some respect.

Science: A) Building upon the information presented in the essay “American Prehistory: 8000 Years of Forest Management” and Worksheet 3, have students investigate the specific methods involved in the use of charcoal deposits, pollen records, carbon dating, and dendrochronology to date prehistoric artifacts. B) Conduct a mock archaeological dig at your school that provides students with a hands-on approach to learning more about the work of archaeologists.


Bonnicksen, Thomas M. America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2000.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Henschel, Gary W. Prehistoric Tools, Points, & Arrowheads. Elkhart Lake, WI: Henschel’s Indian Museum, 1996.

Hothem, Lar. Indian Artifacts of the Midwest. Paducah, Kentucky: Collector Books, 1992.

MacCleery, Douglas. American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery. Durham, NC: Forest History Society, 2011. [Order]

MacLeish, William H. The Day Before America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Mann, Charles C. “1491.” The Atlantic Monthly (March 2002): 41-53.

Nabokov, Peter and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.


Bibliographic resources on forestry, conservation and environmental history at Forest History Society

Free PDF of American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery.

Links to literature from many cultures, often describing connections to nature: Indigenous Peoples Literature

Information about prehistoric Native American cultures, most especially in Illinois: Illinois State Museum.