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Stored crops of the Inka August 11th, 2019 by

Much of what ancient people leave behind is related to farming, as I was reminded on a recent trip to Inka Llajta, the largest Inka site in Bolivia, in Pocona, Cochabamba.

Little is known for sure about Inka Llajta, except that it was built on the far, southeast border of the Inka Empire, which they called Tawantinsuyu. The Inka were often at war, expanding into the territory of their neighbors, so it’s possible that the 30-hectare settlement was built as a garrison. Inka Llajta is built on the bottom of a steep cliff, on a bluff above the river. The spot would have been fairly easy to defend, while a waterfall on the site provided essential water.

Fortunately, the site has recently been cleared of much of its vegetation and it is now easier to see. Although I have been to Inka Llajta several times, thanks to the recent brush removal I was now able to see that ringing the front of the site is a row of storage pits.

Until a generation ago, potatoes were planted mostly in the rainy season. Now there is more irrigation and potatoes can be planted somewhere in Bolivia year-round. But until twenty or thirty years ago, some potatoes were stored in underground pits, where the tubers could be kept for six months or more.

I pointed out the row of pits to our guide, doña Berta, who is from one of the local communities. The pits were not on the tour. They had no sign to label and explain them. Humble agricultural features are easy to ignore.

“These were phinas,” I suggested, using the Quechua word I had learned for potato storage pits.

Doña Berta said that in Pocona, such pits are called “k’ayus,” but she immediately recognized them. “We used to make pits, put straw on the bottom, fill them with potatoes and cover them with earth,” she said, confirming that the pits were for potato storage. She added that the pits can also hold other roots and tubers, such as oca.

Inka Llajta is a grand site. It has one building that was 70 meters long, one of the largest roofed structures in the ancient Americas. But Tawantinsuyu lived by farming, and if we look close enough, we can still see where they kept their potato harvest, just a few steps from the fortified buildings, overlooking the valley below. 

When I first visited Inka Llajta 20 years ago it appeared much the way that the Inka had left it. Since then, the site has acquired a parking lot, a visitor’s center, and now you have to hire a guide (like the good-natured Berta, or one of her 16 colleagues, all from the local area). Inka Llajta is now full of signs offering information, including speculation about the site’s past.

One large block of rooms is labelled as an administrative area, while another was supposedly a “specialist’s area” where astronomers, agricultural specialists and builders gathered to organize their calendar based on the weather and the stars. The signs refer to another building as an aqllawasi, where girls of Tawantinsuyu were trained in weaving and brewing chicha, an alcoholic maize drink. In fact, these rooms could have been used for anything, and everything.

A natural boulder in the center of the large plaza is described as an “altar”, based on tales told by the hacienda workers to Erland Nordenskiöld, the Swedish ethnographer, in 1913.

A small tower near the edge of Inka Llajta has a view up the river, where a sentinel might have looked out for approaching enemies. But a sign says the tower was an astronomic observatory that the Inka used to gaze at the stars and decide when to plant. No explanation tells why being two meters closer to the heavens provides a better view for a stargazer.

As we have seen in earlier blogs, contemporary Andean peoples do look at the stars, but they also observe foxes, lizards, wild plants, cactus, clouds, mountains and use many other indicators to predict the year’s weather. A tower would have been of limited use.

Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies to interpret the past. The function of a structure or an artifact may be understood by comparing it to a similar item used by recent people. For example, it is reasonable to interpret the pits at Inka Llajta as places to store tubers, because rural people living near the site still kept potatoes and oca in similar holes until recently.

When archaeological sites are interpreted for the public, speculation can do more harm than good, fixing ideas in peoples’ minds that are hard to shift when new evidence emerges. As surely as an army marches on its stomach, in past civilizations agriculture made the world go around. Ancient peoples no doubt worshipped their gods and pondered the stars, but they also went about the mundane business of feeding themselves, and at archaeological sites you can still get a glimpse of how they produced and stored their food, if you keep your eyes open.

Further reading

Jesús Lara popularized Inka Llajta in newspaper stories after his 1927 visit. Lara’s description of the site is admirably free of speculation; he debunks the idea that the boulder on the site was an altar. His book can still be read with profit.

Lara, Jesús 1988 Inkallajta—Inkaraqay. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. 109 pp.

Previous blog stories

Forgetting Inca technology

Let nature guide you

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Betting on the weather

Scientific name

Oca is a native Andean tuber crop, Oxalis tuberosa

Forgetting Inca technology June 16th, 2019 by

No one knows how the Incas built their famous temples and palaces. Ordinary Inca houses were made of uncut field stones, with no mortar. But their palaces and temples were built in a style of fine masonry, with stones of irregular shapes, yet cut so precisely that they fit together perfectly. Inca fine masonry is one of the wonders of ancient engineering. The late Swiss historian, Armin Bollinger, writes that the stones even “dance” in place during earthquakes, before settling back into their original position.

Previous Andean cultures worked with large stones placed close together, but in simpler patterns than the unique, high art of fine masonry used during the Inca Empire (about 1425 to 1532 AD). The massive pre-Inca blocks at the prehistoric city of Tiwanaku are placed side-by-side, as rectangles, not in the Inca pattern, where each stone is of a unique size and shape.

Even the conquistadores admired the Inca stonework, yet the Spaniards never saw the walls being built. After the conquest, the Incas never built in their finest tradition again, as the Spanish directed them to build in the European style instead.

Bollinger dismissed some common theories of how the walls were made, such as the idea that the blocks were put in place, then taken off and chipped some more before being put back in place, over and over until the fit was perfect. Many of the blocks were too big for that, since they weighed over 20 tons. Another theory is that the Inca masons rubbed the stones together, back and forth until they fit perfectly together. But the stones were mostly andesite, a basalt-like stone that is too hard to work just by rubbing.

Both of these ideas rely on using mass amounts of brute force. Bollinger no doubt would have preferred a theory that also included smart engineering and careful measurement to explain how the stones were fitted. But that knowledge is simply lost. Inca fine masonry has never been documented, nor reinvented, not even with the help of machinery. Although in a recent experience, Brandon Clifford (MIT) and Wes McGee (Univ. Michigan) get pretty close, with digital technology, glue, with small blocks made of concrete, and robotic arms to do the carving.

Technology is a game of use it or lose it. Whether it is a style of masonry, or of farming, even ingenious techniques can be lost if they are not used.

Agricultural knowledge has been evolving for at least 5000 years, a lot longer than the Inca stone walls have existed. As farmers adapt their knowledge to make it relevant in a changing world, it is important to respect, document and keep that knowledge alive which is not only clever: it feeds us. It is in humanity’s interest to keep as many techniques on hand as possible, to remain adaptive. Human knowledge is fragile. It can vanish if it is not used.

Further reading

Bollinger, Armin 1997 AsĂ­ ConstruĂ­an los Inkas. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. Translated by Rainer B. Podratz. Original title So Bauten die Inka.

Clifford, Brandon, and Wes McGee. 2015 “Digital Inca: An assembly method for free-form geometries.” Thomsen, M. R., Tamke, M., Gengnagel, C., Faircloth, B., & Scheurer, F. (Eds.). Modelling Behaviour. Springer. 173-186.

Related blogs

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

Anasazi beans

Related videos

Almost all of the videos on www.accessagriculture.org show a sensitive mix of local knowledge and appropriate new ideas.  For example, there is a new series on herbal medicines for livestock from India, and a series on traditional Andean knowledge of the weather.

Caring for animals, with plants May 12th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The yapuchiris continue to fascinate me. We’ve written about these expert farmers in the Bolivian Altiplano before, but there’s always something new to learn from them. Take Constantino Franco, for example, who is a jilakata, the highest traditional authority in self-governing rural communities.

In 2015, don Constantino began to teach other farmers about a method to treat the wounds of animals. He would gather several kinds of plants, boil them in fat and let the infusion cool. It made a salve that he could apply to the wounds of livestock.

At Prosuco, the NGO that supports the yapuchiris, agronomist Sonia Laura encouraged don Constantino to teach others about the remedy. She also wondered if it was really effective, so she asked a livestock expert, Elva Vargas, to investigate. Elva contacted a veterinarian, Sefarín Mena, who knew about the active ingredients of the plants used in salves, and who confirmed the value of don Constantino’s ointment.

Validating local knowledge in this way ensures that local treatments can be shared confidently with a wider audience.

I caught up with don Constantino recently and watched how he explained his method to yapuchiris and other farmers attending a workshop held in the remote village of Chigani Alto, on a hillside overlooking Lake Titicaca. Yapuchiris from distant communities had come to work with local farmers. They broke into groups and spent the morning on different farming topics, such as seed, weather, and soil.

Don Constantino had gathered an enthusiastic group around him. His new friends from Chigani Alto went to the nearby hills and returned with a selection of medicinal plants. They ground the plants in a metal hand-cranked grinder. Except for the gel-like aloe vera, which they scraped with a knife.

The group boiled the plants in fat in a new, earthen pot, to avoid adding a bitter taste to someone’s good cooking pot. Then they squeezed the plants in a cloth to obtain the herbal liquid extract. They ladled this into little plastic containers, so everyone at the workshop could take some of the salve away with them. The experiments would continue at home.

It was a simple but valuable exercise, sharing an effective local practice that is widely available to farmers and reduces their dependency on synthetic products. Being able to make inputs instead of buying them from agroinput dealers is important for smallholders who are often making a living on very tight profit margins.

Recipe

Ingredients:

Fresh eucalyptus leaves

Chamomile flowers

An aloe vera leaf

Some mint

Some malva

A kilo of animal fat, petroleum jelly or vegetable lard.

Equipment:

A hand-cranked metal grinder

A knife

A thick cloth

An earthen pot

Preparation:

Scrape off a handful of aloe vera gel.

Grind the other ingredients in the grinder.

Put the earthen pot on the stove.

Add the fat.

When it is melted add a handful of each of the ground plants and stir.

After five minutes remove from the heat.

Strain the mixture through a cloth to remove the solid plants parts.

Pour the mixture into a pot or other suitable container and allow it to cool.

Apply it to the wounds of animals to encourage healing.

Blog stories about yapuchiris

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Three generations of knowledge

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Predicting the weather

Related videos

You can catch of glimpse of don Constantino, wearing the red poncho of a jilakata, in the video:

Recording the weather; you can also watch the video in Spanish, and in two Andean languages: Aymara and Quechua.

Videos from India about botanical medicines for animals:

Deworming goats and sheep with herbal medicines

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

And a video from Egypt about caring for skin ailments of horses and donkeys

Preventing fly-borne illness in donkeys and horses

CUIDANDO A LOS ANIMALES, CON PLANTAS

12 de mayo del 2019, por Jeff Bentley

Los yapuchiris me siguen fascinando. Hemos escrito antes sobre estos agricultores expertos en el Altiplano boliviano, pero siempre hay algo nuevo que aprender de ellos. Por ejemplo, Constantino Franco es jilakata, una autoridad tradicional en las comunidades originarias.

En 2015, don Constantino comenzó a enseñar a otros agricultores un método para curar las heridas de los animales. Reunía varios tipos de plantas, las hervía en grasa y dejaba enfriar la infusión. Hizo una pomada que podía aplicar a las heridas del ganado.

En Prosuco, la ONG que apoya a los yapuchiris, la ingeniera agrónoma Sonia Laura alentó a don Constantino a enseñar a otros sobre el remedio. También se preguntó si era realmente efectivo, así que pidió que una zootecnista Elva Vargas, investigara. Elva se contactó con un doctor veterinario, Sefarín Mena, quien ya sabía de los ingredientes activos de las plantas que se usaban en las pomadas, y confirmó el valor de la pomada de don Constantino.

Validando el conocimiento local de esta manera asegura que las curaciones locales puedan ser compartidas con más confianza con una audiencia más amplia.

Volví a ver a don Constantino recientemente y escuché mientras explicó su método a yapuchiris y a otros agricultores mientras asistían a un taller en la remota comunidad de Chigani Alto, en una ladera con vista al Lago Titicaca. Los yapuchiris de comunidades lejanas habían venido a trabajar con los agricultores locales. Se dividieron en grupos y pasaron la mañana en diferentes temas agrícolas, tales como semillas, clima, y suelo.

Don Constantino había reunido a un grupo entusiasta a su alrededor. Sus nuevos amigos de Chigani Alto fueron a las colinas cercanas y regresaron con una selección de plantas medicinales. Molieron las plantas en un molino metálico de manivela manual. Excepto por el gel de aloe vera, que rasparon con un cuchillo.

El grupo hirvió las plantas en grasa, en una nueva olla de barro, para evitar de añadir un sabor amargo a la buena olla de alguien. Luego exprimieron las plantas en un paño, para obtener el extracto de las plantas. Lo vertieron en pequeños recipientes de plástico, para que todos en el taller pudieran llevarse algo de la pomada. Los experimentos continuarían en casa.

Fue un ejercicio simple pero valioso, compartiendo una práctica local efectiva para hacerla más ampliamente accesible a los agricultores y reducir su dependencia de los productos sintĂ©ticos.  El poder hacer insumos en lugar de comprarlos de la tienda agro-pecuaria es importante para los campesinos, que a menudo se ganan la vida con márgenes muy estrechos.

Receta

Ingredientes:

Hojas frescas de eucalipto

Flores de manzanilla

Una hoja de sábila

Menta

Malva

Un kilo de grasa de animal, jalea de petrĂłleo (vaselina) o manteca vegetal

Equipo:

Un molino metálico manual

Un cuchillo

Una tela gruesa

Una olla de barro

PreparaciĂłn:

Raspe un puñado de gel de aloe vera.

Moler el resto de los ingredientes en el molino.

Ponga la olla de barro sobre el fuego.

Añadir la grasa.

Cuando se derrita, añadir un puñado de cada una de las plantas molidas y remover.

Después de cinco minutos, retirar del fuego.

Colar la mezcla en una tela para eliminar las partes sĂłlidas de la planta.

Vierta la mezcla en una olla u otro recipiente adecuado y deje que se enfrĂ­e.

AplĂ­quelo a las heridas de los animales para favorecer la curaciĂłn.

Blogs sobre los yapuchiris

InspiraciĂłn de Bangladesh a Bolivia

Three generations of knowledge

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Agricultores producen contenido electrĂłnico

Prediciendo el clima

Videos que le podrĂ­an interesar

En el video se puede ver a don Constantino, vestido con el poncho rojo de un jilakata:

Hacer un registro del clima, disponible también en dos idiomas nativos de los Andes: aymara y quechua.

Videos de la India sobre remedios botánicos para los animales:

Deworming goats and sheep with herbal medicines

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Y un video de Egipto sobre el cuidado de enfermedades de piel de caballos y burros

Preventing fly-borne illness in donkeys and horses

Learn by eating April 14th, 2019 by

The prickly pear is delicious, if you can figure out how to eat it. The cactus fruit is covered by minute thorns, as hard to see as a strand of blonde human hair. Some Bolivians avoid the irritating thorns by holding the fruit with a fork and then peeling it with a knife. The little thorns on the fruit are so aggravating that they have their own name in the Quechua language: qhepu, as opposed to the larger thorns, called khishka, found on the pads of the cactus or on other spiny plants.

On a recent Sunday afternoon Ana and I admired the fruit growing in the gardens of Villa, a village near Punata, and we wondered if anyone would sell us some. Ana thought they would not. Prickly pear is usually harvested in the morning, when the qhepus tend to be firmly attached to the fruit. If people harvest in the mid-day they can get covered in brittle qhepus.

But two teenaged girls who were selling soft drinks in front of their house thought that their mom might sell us some fruit. It was late enough in the day to harvest prickly pear.

Their mom, doña Norma, put on a thick leather glove and began twisting the prickly pears off of the cactus plant. Then she told her daughter to pick some branches of sunch’u, a weedy, flowering plant. Doña Norma took the prickly pears to a patch of thick grass where her daughter brushed off the qhepus with the sunch’u branches.

A lot of information came to life that afternoon: how to harvest fruit with infuriating thorns, how to disarm the prickly pears with a handful of leaves, and the best time of day to do it. Local knowledge is like that: passed on not in the abstract, or in the classroom, but during everyday events such as working and eating.

See how cactus fruit is harvested and cleaned of thorns in these short video clips from Agtube

Harvesting prickly pear

Removing thorns from cactus fruit

Scientific names

The prickly pear is Opuntia ficus-indica

Sunch’u is Viguiera lanceolate

Related blog story

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

Let nature guide you March 17th, 2019 by

Farmers need to take decisions every day. Smallholders living in remote areas often have no one to turn to to ask advice. Nobody tells them which crop to grow or when is a good time to plant. In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about the Yapuchiris, experienced organic farmers on the Bolivian altiplano who started recording their observations on weather, natural indicators and their crops on a daily basis. Some have done so for over 10 years.

In this harsh environment predicting the weather correctly can make the difference between harvesting a crop or harvesting nothing at all.

As always, when producing farmer training videos, we are fortunate to interact with farmers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences. In the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, one of the Yapuchiris, Don Bernabé, explains that if frost hits your quinoa, you can lose your crop from one day to the next, all past efforts being in vain. He guides us in the brush land and shows us a local bush called tara t’ula in the Aymara language. “This plant doesn’t like the cold very much, so if you find many of these plants, it is a good place to build your farm house, your corral to keep your llamas and grow your crop.”

But even if your farm is wel located, frost can strike. So don Bernabé has many other natural indicators to inform him about what actions to take. “If the lizard makes a fresh house it will rain tomorrow, but if it starts to close its burrow, it will freeze that night. I then collect t’ula plants and burn them in my quinoa field from 3 to 5 am so that the frost will not settle on my crop,” he continues.

Apart from observing plants and animals, don Bernabé also reads the clouds and wind. Amazingly, winds in June and July already tell him how the next rainy season that starts in January will be. Arrived at a large sand dune, he points to the pattern of vertical ridges blown into the side of the dune. “If the lines are some 10 centimeters apart, the rains will come close to each other and we will have a good harvest. But if they are further apart, the rains will also be sparser and our crop will suffer.”

Don Bernabé has written a book about these natural weather indicators. As he shows us around the landscape, he proudly carries his book with colour photographs that clearly explain all the natural indicators he knows. Reading nature is a skill that requires spending a lot of time outdoors, observing natural phenomena.

The next few days we met some other extraordinary Yapuchiris, each sharing their knowledge with us in front of the camera. It is exciting to be part of this and at the same time an eye opener as to how much industrial agriculture in the West has become disconnected from nature.

With climate change, the need to build on local knowledge will grow in importance.

I cannot think of a better way to end this blog then by quoting don Bernabé once more: “Well these plants and animals are more intelligent than the human being. They know how to live in this land and they know it perfectly. For that reason, it is necessary not to lose this knowledge and that the young people should keep practicing this ancestral knowledge that is so rich.”

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform, in English, French, Spanish, Quechua and Aymara:

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Betting on the weather

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

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