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Recreating Raised Field Agriculture in Bolivia and Peru

An Interview with Clark Erickson


Raised Fields at Huatta

Raised fields during the growing season in the Community of Segunda Collana, Huatta.

Clark Erickson

A Lesson in Applied Archaeology

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The land of the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia was long thought to be unproductive agriculturally. Archaeological projects in the high Andes around Lake Titicaca have documented a vast complex of agricultural earthworks, referred to as "raised fields," that supported ancient civilizations in the region. The raised fields were first used around 3000 years ago and were abandoned before or at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. The raised fields cover a total of 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of land, and represent an almost unimaginable effort.

In the early 1980s, archaeologist Clark Erickson, Peruvian agronomist Ignacio Garaycochea, anthropologist Kay Candler, and agricultural journalist Dan Brinkmeier began a small experiment in the Huatta, a Quechua-speaking community of farmers near Lake Titicaca. They persuaded some local farmers to rebuild a few of the raised fields, plant them in indigenous crops, and farm them using traditional methods. The "Green Revolution," which attempted to impose inappropriate western crops and techniques in the Andes, had been a miserable failure. The archaeological evidence suggested that raised fields might be more appropriate for the region. The technology was indigenous to the region and it had been successfully used by farmers in the distant past. On a small scale, the experiment was considered successful, and today, some farmers are once again using the technology of their ancestors to produce food. Recently, Clark Erickson discussed his work in the Andean highlands and his new project in the Bolivian Amazon.

Can you tell us what led you to first investigate the ancient farming techniques of Lake Titicaca?

I've always been fascinated by farming. When I was kid, my family spent summers on my grandparents’ farm in upstate New York. I never thought that I'd be able to study farmers as a career. Ancient agriculture seems to be a topic that would give me the chance to investigate what Eric Wolf has called "the people without history." The common folk who made up most of the population in the past have long been ignored by archaeologists and historians. Landscape and farming studies can contribute to our understanding of the sophisticated indigenous knowledge and technology developed by rural peoples of the past.

The rural situation today in the Lake Titicaca Basin of highland Peru and Bolivia is similar to other areas of the developing world. Families often live below poverty level; migration from the countryside to the regional urban centers and capital is an ongoing process; infant mortality rates are high; lands farmed continuously for generations have lost their ability to support growing families. Development and relief aid that has been poured into the region appears to have had little effect on resolving the serious problems faced by rural families.

In contrast, archaeologists and ethnohistorians have documented that the region supported dense urban populations in the past and several important precolumbian civilizations originated and thrived there. The hillslopes are criss-crossed with terrace walls and the surfaces of the lake plains are covered with raised fields, canals, and sunken gardens indicating that this was once a highly productive agricultural "breadbasket" for the south central Andes. Some of the agricultural technology and crops developed by the past farmers have survived to the present, but most of the field systems lie abandoned and forgotten. Could archaeology be used to resurrect this ancient knowledge of production?
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