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A Lesson in Applied Archaeology, Part 2

Recreating Raised Field Agriculture


Prehispanic Raised Fields

Pre-hispanic raised fields in the lake plain (pampa) of Huatta, Peru

Clark Erickson

A Lesson in Applied Archaeology

Table of Contents

Recreating Raised Field Agriculture

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. This is part two of that interview.

In this part of the interview, Dr. Erickson discusses the details recreating raised field agriculture.

How much did you learn from the archaeology and how much from trial and error working with the farmers? In other words, have there been modern adaptations to the methodology of the past?

The raised fields of the Lake Titicaca region had been abandoned for many centuries. All that remained were the faint linear patterns on the land surface of eroded surfaces of the ancient platforms and the depressions of sediment-filled canals between them. Archaeology provided a means to study the material remains of the fields themselves. We first mapped the patterns of the fields and canals with a surveying instrument to provide detailed maps of typical field complexes. We dug long narrow trenches perpendicular to the canals and platforms to provide a "window" into their internal structure. The differences in soil color and texture provided us with important information. We could determine the original boundaries between canal and field, various building episodes, and field abandonment. All of this was valuable for reconstructing the original forms of the field platforms and canals and the various farming activities done to construct and maintain the raised fields. In many cases, we could document that the first fields were small platforms that were expanded into larger platforms over time. In addition to periodic cleaning of the organic sediments from the canals and rebuilding of the platforms, the farmers appear to have adjusted the field and canal size according to local conditions and production needs. Soils from buried field contexts produced identifiable pollen representing some of the crops and weeds associated with the fields when they were in use.

The archaeological excavations and mapping provided information on the basic form of the original raised fields. Using this as a guide, we began working with members of the local communities of Huatta and Coata to rebuild, or in this case, rehabilitate, ancient raised fields. We tried as much as possible to respect the original designs and dimensions, figuring that what worked for the farmers of the past would probably work today. In most cases, the reconstruction simply involved cutting sod blocks from the sediment-filled canals and placing them on the old eroded field to raise the platform to its original height of 2-4 feet.

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