Monday, September 3, 2012

Modern use of an ancient farming system

Raised field construction (from Clark Erickson)
Raised fields -- an ancient form of agriculture, practiced by the Mayas, Aztecs, and the ancestors of the Incas -- was one of the most productive preindustrial farming systems anywhere. These fields were abandoned in most areas centuries ago, and largely forgotten. In the 1980s archaeologists excavated ancient raised  fields around Lake Titicaca in the Andes. Based on their findings, modern rural peoples started rebuilding raised fields. They turn out to be well adapted to the natural and social systems of the Titicaca area.

Archaeological interest in ancient raised fields starts with the observation that they were a form of
"intensive agriculture." Urban populations need large amounts of food, and with primitive transportation methods food had to be grown locally (unless we are talking about imperial Rome, where food could be shipped across the Mediterranean from Egypt easily and inexpensively). Under preindustrial conditions, "intensive agriculture" refers to methods that require considerable investment of labor in order to increase the yield on the land. Consider the difference between rainfall agriculture and irrigation agriculture in a given environment. The construction of canals and dams, and their required maintenence, can increase yields tremendously, but at the cost of requiring much more labor than rainfall agriculture. Irrigation is an example of intensive agriculture, while rainfall farming is a kind of extensive agriculture.
Figure 1 - Tiwanaku

Figure 2 - Relic fields on the shore of Lake Titicaca
Large, complex urban societies almost always rely on farming systems with intensive methods to feed their population. The most common forms of preindustrial intensive agriculture around the world were canal irrigation and hillside terracing. The earliest cities in Mesopotamia used irrigation, while the Inka cities of the Andes relied on terracing (with some irrigation). Aztec cities used both methods, plus the intensive cultivation of kitchen gardens. But perhaps the most remarkable form of ancient intensive agriculture were raised fields. This is a method of swamp reclamation, where long, parallel field beds are created by piling up dirt and muck from the swamp. Shallow canals are left in between the raised beds, and these canals have to be cleaned out periodically by scooping up the muck (a natural organic fertilizer) and piling it on the fields.
Fig. 3 - Clark Erickson

I talked about Aztec raised fields (called "chinampas") in a previous post. Here I want to focus on raised fields in the Andes. Tiwanaku was major urban center in Bolivia near Lake Titicaca, that flourished between AD 600 and 800 (fig 1). The plain around Lake Titicaca today is full of remnants of ancient raised fields (fig 2) that helped support the ancient city's population. A number of archaeologists have excavated and studied these ancient fields (see bibliography below). Here, I focus on the work of Clark Erickson (fig 3).


Fig 4
Clark Erickson (an old pal from graduate school at the University of Illinois) began with excavation and mapping of the fields, but then decided to see whether he could re-introduce the system for use by contemporary campesinos. In many ways ancient forms of intensive agriculture would seem to work well in the developing countries today -- they have high yields, use simple technology, they rely mainly on human labor, and they keep control of farming in local hands. This is a low-tech approach to economic development, using principles pioneered by EF Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (fig 4). It is the opposite of the high-tech approach that involves mechanized equipment, petrochemicals, and hybrid seeds. While many development agencies championed the latter approach, in fact it can be detrimental in poor rural areas. Once the foreign funding runs out, farmers can't buy or repair equipment, they can't afford the fertilizers and herbicides, and the result is that a few people get rich and most get poorer.
Fig 5 - Rebuilding ancient fields

Fig 6 - Ancient and rebuilt raised fields
Fig 7 - Building new fields
Clark managed to get some people to rebuilt and rehabilitate ancient raised fields (figs 5, 6), and others to build new fields from scratch (fig 7). He made use of a publicity campaign involving comic-book like pamphlets with text in both Spanish and Aymara (fig 8). At first the fields were a real success, and some farmers had yields higher than those who were following the high-tech development approach. Although his efforts were opposed by development experts from the United Nations and other development organizations, up to ten square km were planted in new raised fields in the 1980s.

By the 1990s, however, the results were mixed. Most of the farms that had been built communally, by large groups, had been abandoned. But the household-level farms, where individual families had built and farmed the new fields, were still functioning.
Fig 8 - Local publicity material

Clark Erickson has since moved on to pursue similar research in the swampy plains of eastern Bolivia, the Llanos de Mojos. He is just one of the archaeologists who have tried to re-introduce ancient farming systems to modern farmers. Alan Kolata has also worked on the Lake Titicaca raised fields, and Christian Isendahl is now working on ancient/modern connections with other indigenous farming systems in Bolivia. I tried doing something similar once in Mexico. An agronomist and I wanted to excavate Aztec terraces, study how they worked, and then try to get modern campesinos to rebuild the ancient terraces and use them again. We could not get funding for our project, however, and then we both ended up working on different topics.

The work of Clark Erickson and the other archaeologists mentioned above are great examples of how archaeological research on ancient cities is relevant to the concerns of the modern world. As we search for solutions to problems of hunger and poverty in the developing world, it behooves us to pay attention to ancient cities and cultures. Many of them were highly successful, and they have clues that can help us today.



Erickson, Clark L.
1989    Raised Field Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin: Putting Ancient Agriculture Back to Work. Expedition 30 (3): 8-16.

1992    Applied Archaeology and Rural Development: Archaeology's Potential Contribution to the Future. Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 20 (1-2): 1-16.

1992    Prehistoric Landscape Management in the Andean Highlands: Ridged Field Agriculture and Its Environmental Impact. Population and Environment 13: 285-300.

2003    Agricultural Landscapes as World Heritage: Raised Field Agriculture in Bolivia and Peru. In Managing Change: Sustainable Approaches to the Conservation of the Built Environment, edited by Jeanne-Marie Teutonica and Frank Matero, pp. 181-204. Getty Consserfation Institute, Los Angeles.

2006    Intensification, Political Economy, and the Farming Community: In Defense of a Bottom-Up Perspective on the Past. In Agricultural Strategies, edited by Joyce Marcus and Charles Stanish, pp. 334-363. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Erickson, Clark L. and Kay L. Candler
1989    Raised Fields and Sustainable Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Peru. In Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, edited by John O. Browder, pp. 230-248. Westview Press, Boulder.

  • For other relevant research, see:


Janusek, John W. and Alan Kolata
2004    Top-Down or Bottom-Up: Rural Settlement and Raised Field Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23: 404-430.

Kolata, Alan L.
1986    The Agricultural Foundations of the Tiwanaku State: A View from the Hhinterland. American Antiquity 51: 748-763.

Kolata, Alan L., O. Rivera, J. C. Ramírez, and E. Gemio
1996    Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. In Tiwanaku and its Hinterland: Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization. Volume 1, Agroecology, edited by Alan L. Kolata, pp. 203-230. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.



1 comment:

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