Re-establishing ancient agricultural practices: Lessons from the recent past (Part Three)

By Jennifer Huebert In this three part series, several recent efforts to re-establish forgotten or fading agricultural practices were reviewed. The first instalment presented key criteria to consider for an effective revival of these food-production technologies. Three case studies were profiled in the second instalment: runoff agriculture in the Israeli desert, forest gardening in Central America and raised-bed agriculture in the Andean highlands. Each example illustrated a distinct problem with a unique history to consider. In this final instalment, I review how each revival effort addressed these criteria and reflect on the importance of studying the distant past to make informed decisions about the future.

Discussion The three case studies presented—raised-bed agriculture at Lake Titicaca, El Pilar forest gardening and runoff irrigation in the Negev Desert—represent a wide variety of environments and distinctly different agricultural practices. Each project was undertaken at a different point in time, spanning the better part of the past fifty years. To aid in comparing these varied projects, and to contemplate their effectiveness, a list of key points was compiled and will be subsequently discussed.

Cost-benefit considerations Each project attempted to resurrect a forgotten or fading agricultural practice. These methods involve widely varying degrees of time, effort and technology. It is important to consider whether there was a clear benefit for the costs related to these projects (1). In the case of raised-bed agriculture near Lake Titicaca, techniques involved simple tools and uncomplicated practices that required a significant initial investment in labour. At El Pilar, traditional Mayan forest gardening did not require special tools or an intensive labour investment but did require participants to learn very involved techniques. Desert farming in the Negev was more complex than the other two case studies on several fronts; the project would have involved a significant amount of labour and engineering skills if the initial wadis had not already been present. These practices also rely on much planning and precise timing, and are the most technically involved of the three case studies.

Today’s environment In order to establish whether the practices were appropriate for the current environmental conditions, the teams that initiated the raised-bed agriculture and desert wadi farming projects performed background research and experimented to ensure that the forgotten techniques were still viable in these areas. In these projects, teams of specialists first gathered data to evaluate soil conditions, water supply, climate, potential plant species and other factors that would influence crop growth. After viability was established, experiments were undertaken by planting test crops in the fields and studying their growth rates and yields. The experiments were repeated over the course of several years, and techniques were then refined. After demonstrating a measure of success, the methods utilized in these two case studies were taken to a wider audience and other local communities, or other societies, were trained in the practices.

Modern-day communities Several project teams considered the agricultural techniques in relation to the cultures they were working with while planning and implementing these practices. In the El Pilar case, the community was involved at all stages of planning as the practices they were attempting to promote were still in use by indigenous peoples in the area. This project focused on goals set by the community, namely to preserve and promote indigenous Mayan culture and to encourage agricultural practices which they believed were in harmony with the natural environment. People in this area participated in the project willingly and continue to support it (3). Researchers in the Titicaca basin case study had a more difficult task because they were bringing their methods to a community who had seen disappointing results from previous outsider attempts to introduce new food-production technology (as summarised in 2). Because the Aymara and Quecha people of the altiplano had no memory of the techniques the researchers wanted to implement, there was little reason for people to embrace raised-field agriculture as their cultural tradition. Kolata, an anthropologist, performed a significant amount of research studying the indigenous cultures of the region in order to understand their group motivations and learning pathways (4). Both Titicaca Basin teams employed multiple training methods to try to ensure community involvement. They also spent time calculating the labour investment required to practice these methods, and invested much time and energy demonstrating that the techniques would be productive. However, their plans were ultimately received with some resistance and varying degrees of enthusiasm (5).

Sustainability All project teams considered whether the practices had been initially sustainable, and uncovered the reasons they were initially forgotten or disappearing. In the Titicaca basin, archaeological excavations at the ancient capital of Tiwanaku and around the raised beds in the area have led archaeologists to conclude that they were largely used to raise surplus crops for the state. Once these polities declined, the agricultural practice waned and was eventually abandoned (6). However, there are additional concerns regarding the productivity and high labour costs associated with the form of cultivation that these project teams failed to appropriately consider (7). In the Negev desert, the immense effort and skill required to initially build walls and terraces throughout the desert in ancient times is thought to have involved labour coordinated from a state centre (8). Once these structures were in place, no extraordinary amount of labour was needed to farm the desert. However, life in this remote area was abandoned when borders or pilgrimage routes through the desert no longer needed to be maintained. In the case of the Mayan forest gardeners at El Pilar, the sustainability of this cultivation method is evident in the extensive and largely anthropogenic forests of the region (8). This method is only under threat of extinction today when socio-political forces have seriously disrupted the indigenous population’s methods of survival.

Where are these projects today? Over twenty years on, the Negev desert farms were reported to be productive, though the farm at Avdat is no longer actively cultivated. In his concluding remarks on the Negev project, Evenari mused that it would have been ideal to turn the desert into a productive environment for the Bedouin nomads while preserving their cultural heritage (9). While it is not clear that this aim was ever achieved, the model farm that was constructed is now a worldwide teaching and research centre for the study of agronomy, plant and soil sciences in arid environments. It has effected change in arid farming practices in ten different countries (10).

After much media and political attention, several non-governmental organizations were formed around the raised agricultural beds of the Lake Titicaca basin. These practices were hailed as a solution to poverty in the region, but when the leadership organizations fell apart and financial incentives to participate were withdrawn the practices were largely abandoned with high labour input given much of the blame. An extensive post-mortem study of these projects was reported in several books and a number of academic writings that called into question the assumptions and tactics used to try to resurrect these agricultural techniques (7, 11, 12). Kolata has revisited the project in his subsequent research, reconsidering issues of state politics and individual agency in regards to the organization of ancient field labour (5). In his own review, Erickson (13) noted that some farmers in the Titicaca region do continue to practice raised-bed farming techniques, and he has conducted similar experiments in other places with success (e.g., 14).

The El Pilar forest gardening project is still very much a work in progress and criteria to evaluate the success of the revival effort are difficult to estimate at this stage. The cultivars used in forest gardening are recorded in detail, but the specific techniques were not reported and no benchmarks could be located to evaluate progress. However, it is acknowledged that the principles of forest gardening are essentially those of agroforestry, which is a well-established, cost effective and sustainable agricultural practice (15, 16). Evidence that these techniques have been used in the region for thousands of years further reinforces the fact that they are sustainable and productive. A concentrated revival effort may make them flourish again. Ford (3) believes a successful project will ultimately encourage ecotourism to attract and educate a wider audience in the methods and benefits of this type of cultivation.

Conclusions Each of the techniques reviewed has been shown to be productive and sustainable. However, as it was argued earlier, re-established agricultural practices must fit not only with the environmental but also the social and economic systems of the cultures for which they are intended. This is evident in the breakdown of the raised-bed agriculture revivals in the Titicaca Basin. These initiatives did not affect large-scale change in food production practices in the region because they did not fit within the current structure of the societies that were involved. The foregoing hypothesis is also supported by the successes of the Mayan Forest Garden Network. Mayan agricultural traditions endured for millennia and have only recently been threatened because of the breakdown of traditional society. The revival effort to educate people in forest gardening methods is supported, and led in part, by the indigenous population of the area and it has great potential to succeed. The Negev desert farming initiative, the most mature of the case studies presented, provides evidence that ancient agricultural practices can actually be leveraged to solve some of today’s global food production problems.

We have a lot to learn from the past, and archaeology provides a unique perspective on the long-term sustainability of various food production practices. It has been demonstrated that local as well as global communities can succeed in the preservation (or revival) of traditional food-production techniques. Agrarian landscapes are cultural landscapes, and ultimately, part of our world heritage.

Contributor’s Biography Jennifer Huebert is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an archaeobotanist with a particular interest in the identification and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal. Her primary research topics include the study of human palaeoecology and the development of arboriculture in the archipelagos of East Polynesia.

The author urges you to become more informed about UNESCO World Heritage designations and the importance of agricultural landscapes in this initiative (see 13).

References Cited

1.         Uphoff NT (2002) The Agricultural Development Challenges We Face. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 3-20.

2.         Erickson C & Chandler K (1989) Raised Fields and Sustainable Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Peru. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 230-248.

3.         Ford A (2004) Human Impacts on the Maya Forest Linking the Past with the Present for the Future of El Pilar, Report on the 2004 Field Season. Accessed: April 20 2008

4.         Kolata AL (1996) Tiwanaku and its Hinterland: Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington).

5.         Kolata AL, Rivera O, Ramirez JC, & Gemio E (1996) Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 203-230.

6.         Janusek JW & Kolata AL (2004) Top-down or bottom-up: rural settlement and raised field agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23(4):404-430.

7.         Bandy MS (2005) Energetic efficiency and political expediency in Titicaca Basin raised field agriculture. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24:271–296.

8.         Haiman M (2006) ADASR - Ancient Desert Agriculture Systems Revived. Accessed: 19 April 2008

9.         Evenari M, Shanan L, & Tadmor N (1982) The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).

10.       Lange OL & Schulze E-D (1989) In memoriam Michael Evenari (formerly Walter Schwarz) 1904–1989. Oecologia 81(4):433-436.

11.       Morris A (2004) Raised Field Technology. The Raised Fields Projects Around Lake Titicaca (Ashgate Aldershot).

12.       Swartley L (2002) Inventing Indigenous Knowledge: Archaeology, Rural Development, and the Raised Field Rehabilitation Project in Bolivia (Routledge, New York) pp xii, 210 p.

13.       Erickson C (2003) Agricultural Landscapes as World Heritage: Raised Field Agriculture in Bolivia and Peru. Managing Change: Sustainable Approaches to the Conservation of the Built Environment. The 4th Annual US/ICOMOS International Symposium 6-8 April 2001, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, eds Teutonico JM & Matero FG (Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles), pp 181-204.

14.       Erickson C (1995) Archaeological methods for the study of ancient landscapes of the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon. Archaeology in the Lowland American Tropics, ed Peter W. Stahl JA (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge), pp 66-95.

15.       Singh P, Pathak PS, & Roy MM (1995) Agroforestry Systems for Sustainable Land Use (Science Publishers, Lebanon, N.H.) pp viii, 283 p.

16.       Elevitch C & Wilkinson K (2000) Agroforestry Guides for Pacific Islands