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Making new ruins April 5th, 2015 by

A little archaeology can be a dangerous thing. Ancient agriculture leaves a trace in modern farming, such as the crops we grow and some of the hand-tools we use. But not all of archaeological agriculture can simply be picked up and used again.

The Inca Empire was renowned for its beautiful agricultural terraces, which still attract visitors from around the world. But terraces were largely built around the city of Cusco, the Inca’s capital. The terraces kept the city fed, were highly productive, and as the geographer William Denevan tells us, they were usually irrigated. Terraces were a way of squeezing the most food out of limited land, and they were built with corvé labor, because the Inca exacted a labor tax, one year in seven, of conquered peoples, who made the roads, granaries, and terraces.

The Inca Empire extended into Bolivia, but few terraces were ever built here.

A few years ago, a certain NGO in Bolivia decided to emulate the ancient terraces, with a population of modern, indigenous, Quechua-speaking farmers.

Farmers use different techniques, depending on whether land is abundant or scarce (as it was in Cusco). For these villagers in the 21st century in PotosĂ­, land was anything but scarce. Dry, rocky land rolled away to the horizon.

Andean farmers have a widespread institution for making use of abundant land. They divide the village territory into 12 or 20 patches and put them through a long rotation. They start by working potatoes one year, in one patch. Then the next year that patch is grown in Andean tubers (see our earlier blog story My wild Andean shamrock) and in the end it is planted with European grains (such as barley, or oats). Then they let the land rest in fallow, and in the off-season the sheep and llamas graze on the crop stubble. This long rotation is known by several names, such as aynoqa or manta-manta (Morlon 1992).

Tempting the farmers with “food for work” (surplus US commodities in exchange for labor on small-scale public works), the villagers built a replica, Inca-style set of terraces in the middle of an aynoqa. People dutifully grew potatoes on the terraces, but within three years the community was farming new patches of land and the land with the terraces, was laying fallow, and its stone terrace system was on its way to becoming an archaeological ruin.

The NGO knew that their terraces had been abandoned, but didn’t know way. I explained to them that they had tried to use a technique from intensive agriculture (where land is scarce, but there is lots of labor) for a community that practices extensive agriculture (where land is abundant and labor is hard to come by).

The NGO’s agronomist lost all patience with me. “But this is an ancestral practice,” he fumed.

That would be simple, if ancestral could just be copied, like an old manuscript. But farming techniques have to be adapted, not simply wrenched from their social and ecological contexts.

On a happier note, a different NGO (on the same project) had helped another village, Yuraj Cancha, also in PotosĂ­, to make several terraces, which the locals were lovingly fertilizing and planting in peaches and potatoes. The difference: this village was in a steep canyon, and land was scarce. For a long time, folks here had built stone terraces and irrigated them, carving narrow, new plots on the canyon sides.

Where there’s a canyon there’s usually a river, and sometimes the water can be taken to the slopes. Because there was no other land, and these terraces could be made productive with irrigation, people were happy to use them.

These villagers were skilled stone workers. They fashioned roof tiles and lids for boxes from sheets of slate. They even used that old Andean technique of making a wall’s foundation out of small, round rocks, and putting bigger blocks on top of them.

You can see the same technique in the ancient houses of Cusco, where the fortress-like Inca walls of multi-ton blocks rest on foundations of fist-sized rounded rocks. It seems to protect the walls from falling down in earthquakes. The walls roll on their foundations instead of collapsing.

Agriculture is complicated, which makes it interesting. No two places, and no two times are exactly the same.

Further reading

Denevan, William M. 2001 Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 396 pp.

Morlon, Pierre (coordinateur) 1992 Comprendre l’Agriculture Paysanne dans les Andes Centrales : Pérou – Bolivie. Paris : Institute de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA). 522 pp.

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