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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

Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

Celebrating 50 years after landing on the moon, a series of weekly TV broadcasts nicely illustrates the spirit of the time. One interview with a man on a New York City street drew my particular attention. The interview showed why so many people supported the NASA programme: “We have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

History has shown over and over again how the urge to colonise other places has been a response to the declining productivity of the local resource base. In his eye-opening book “Dirt. The Erosion of Civilizations”, Professor David Montgomery from the University of Washington made me better understand the global and local dynamics of land use from a social and historical perspective.

Out of the many examples given in his book, I will focus on the most recent example: the growth of industrial agriculture, as the rate of soil erosion has taken on such a dramatic proportion that it would be a crime against humanity not to invest all of our efforts to curb the trend and ensure food production for the next generations.

The Second World War triggered various changes affecting agriculture. First, the area of land cultivated in the American Great Plains doubled during the war. The increased wheat production made more exports to Europe possible. Already aware of the risks of soil erosion, in 1933 the U.S. government established an elaborate scheme of farm subsidies to support soil conservation, crop diversification, stabilize farm incomes and provide flexible farm credit. Most farmers took loans to buy expensive machinery. Within a decade, farm debt more than doubled while farm income only rose by a third.

After the Second World War, military assembly lines were converted for civilian use, paving the way for a 10-fold increase in the use of tractors. By the 1950s several million tractors were ploughing American fields. On the fragile prairy ecosystem of the Great Plains, soil erosion rapidly took its toll and especially small farmers were hit by the drought in the 1950s. Many farmers were unable to pay back their loans, went bankrupt and moved to cities. The few large farmers who were left increased their farm acreage and grew cash crops to pay off the debt of their labour-saving machinery. By the time the first man had put his foot on the moon, 4 out of 10 American farms had disappeared in favour of large corporate factory farms.

At the same time that the end of the Second World War triggered large-scale mechanization, the use of chemical fertilizer also sharply increased. Ammonia factories used to produce ammunition were converted to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Initial increase in productivity during the Green Revolution stalled and started to decline within two decades. By now the sobering figures indicate that despite the high yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs, productivity in up to 39% of the area growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed. Reliance on purchased annual inputs has increased production costs, which has led in many cases to increased farmer debt, and subsequent farm business failures. At present, agriculture consumes 30% of our oil use. With the rising oil and natural gas prices it may soon become too expensive to use these dwindling resources to produce fertilizer. 

Armed with fertilizers, farmers thought that manure was no longer needed to fertilize the land. A decline in organic matter in soils further aggravated the vulnerability of soils to erosion. As people saw the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished ad libitum to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that provided a living bridge between organic matter, soil minerals and plants. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

A 1995 review reported that each year 12 million hectares of arable land are lost due to soil erosion and land degradation. This is 1% of the available arable soil, per year. The only three regions in the world with good (loess) soil for agriculture are the American Midwest, northern Europe and northern China. Today, about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water.

While the plough has been the universal symbol of agriculture for centuries, people have begun to understand the devastating effect of ploughing on soil erosion. By the early 2000s, already 60% of farmland in Canada and the U.S.A. were managed with conservation tillage (leaving at least 30% of the field covered with crop residues) or no-till methods. In most other parts of the world, including Europe, ploughing is still common practice and living hedges as windbreaks against erosion are still too often seen as hindrance for large-scale field operations.

In temperate climates, ploughing gradually depletes the soil of organic matter and it may take a century to lose 10 centimetres of top soil. This slow rate of degradation is a curse in disguise, as people may not fully grasp the urgency required to take action. However, in tropical countries the already thinner top soil can be depleted of organic matter and lost to erosion in less than a decade. The introduction of tractor hiring services in West Africa may pose a much higher risk to medium-term food security than climate change, as farmers plough their fields irrespective of the steepness, soil type or cropping system. In Nigeria, soil erosion on cassava-planted hillslopes removes more than two centimetres of top soil per year.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of conventional agriculture, the bulk of public research and international development aid is still geared around a model that supports export-oriented agriculture that mines the soils, and chemical-based intensification of food production that benefits large corporations. Farm subsidies and other public investments in support of a more agroecological approach to farming are still sadly insufficient, yet a report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition published this month concludes that the short-term costs of creating a level playing field for implementing the principles suggested by agroecology may seem high, but the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher.

With the reserves of oil and natural gas predicted to become depleted before the end of this century, changes to our industrial model of petroleum-based agriculture will happen sooner than we think. And whether we are ready for it is a societal decision. With all attention being drawn to curbing the effects of climate change, governments, development agencies and companies across the world also have a great and urgent responsibility to invest in promoting a more judicious use of what many see as the cheapest resource in agriculture, namely land. We are running out of space and colonising other planets is the least likely option to save our planet from starvation.

Further reading

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 285 pp.

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Pimentel, D.C., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, I., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., M, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R. and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and Economic Cost of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 267, 1117-23.

Related videos

Over 100 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

Related blogs

From uniformity to diversity

Fighting farmers

Stop erosion

Let nature guide you

Slow recovery

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster

Planting a wrong image July 7th, 2019 by

A picture says more than a thousand words. And pictures stick better in the mind. On a recent visit to the organic farm shop Eikelenhof, run by our friends Johan and Vera, I was reminded how easy it is for wrong images to become received knowledge.

Vera was talking to Peter, a plastic artist from the neighbourhood and one of the regular customers at the farm shop. The past few days we had had quite some severe storms and Peter was telling how the gusty winds had taken their toll with broken branches and uprooted trees as a result. Uprooted trees and heavy soil erosion are some of the few occasions when people get to see a glimpse of how the roots of mature trees look like. When they continued discussing about tree roots, both said that the roots are a mirror of the tree canopy. At that stage I intervened and started explaining how this image survived for centuries, but that this was absolutely wrong. Vera and Peter are both clever successful people, but like many of us, it is hard for them to shake off an image that has been impressed in their minds.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin was making history with his research on how species had evolved over millions of years. The scientific revolution and the age of exploration ignited a growing interest in exotic plants and the economic potential they might have, leading to the boom of botanical gardens across Europe. These events also triggered a general interest in nature overall, and especially in England this passion for gardens has lived on until today.

When a 19th century graphic artist diverted from the botanical drawing style, which was based on accurate observations, he drew from imagination a stylistic tree with the roots being as a mirror of the canopy. He had no idea how it would impact on future generations. Helped by the technical breakthrough of offset printing and emerging media houses, this image made its way across Europe and firmy established in the minds of ordinary folks. Until today, hundreds of variations continue to be developed and spread, further feeding this misperception.

But my friends at the farm shop in Belgium are not the only people who accept the received wisdom that a tree’s roots mirror its branches. Even Thai farmers have taken the idea on board. When visiting a mango project in Thailand some 20 years ago, I recall visiting orchards where farmers had dug a trench just below the edge of the tree canopy to irrigate and put some organic fertilizer. It was explained to me that this was the zone where all the feeder roots of the trees could be found. Until today, tree roots are poorly studied, partly because they are hard to observe.

Fortunately, many of the 19th century illustrators painted accurate pictures of the natural world, which led to a greater understanding of natural history. Whether we illustrate with water colors or with video, it is important to get the picture right.

Related blogs

Travels around the sun

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.

The diesel wheat mills May 5th, 2019 by

The people of Yuraj Molino (“white mill”) live surrounded by wheat fields, in a large valley near the small town of Pocona, Bolivia. As the name suggests, there have been flour mills in Yuraj Molino for some time. But by the late 1970s, customers were complaining of how long it took to grind the wheat; they got tired of waiting all day for their flour. And then millers began to notice that with the warmer, dryer climate, the streams no longer carried as much stream water, to power the mills. Some of the mills closed. Ana and I visited the ruins of a miller’s house, the yard full of weeds, with the mill still there and a calendar for 1984 still on the wall.

Other mills survived. Local miller Juan Torrico showed us his old mill house, with the canal that once brought water from the mountains. In 2001, Juan’s brother Sergio designed a new mill at the mill house. He bought two large, new stones from a master craftsman near Epizana, Cochabamba, who still carves the massive limestone wheels. Sergio bought a diesel engine, and a used truck axel. The brothers built a new mill house and mounted the stones in it, fixed the axel upright below them, and then used a steel rod to connect the axel to the diesel engine, which Sergio put in the next room. This way they kept the diesel smoke and the engine noise out of the mill room. They don’t want the smoke to spoil the delicate flavor of the flour, which people love.

Five or six other mills in the valley are also sited where old water mills used to be, near running water. But most of them are also now powered by diesel motors.

One by one the old water mills around Pocona adapted to diesel, and one or two are still using water power. The change to diesel was gradual and there was never a break in service, never a time when the farmers had no mills to go to. The mills themselves also stayed in the same places. Although the mills were originally sited to be near water, they were also near the wheat fields, and the millers owned the land where their mills were, and they had community ties to the area. So, the diesel mills stayed right where the water mills had been.

There is no research institution providing expertise on how to motorize Bolivian water mills. At some point, the millers themselves had to blend their traditional knowledge with a lot of new information about motors and old truck parts. As always, people in rural areas are constantly creating and making sophisticated adaptations to changing conditions.

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