Since November is National Indigenous Heritage Month we want to feature an archaeological site that is pretty well known, Machu Picchu, Peru. However, while most people know that it was a ceremonial place for the Incan empire, they may not know that it was also likely a place of agricultural innovation. In fact, there is a whole area that the Incans devoted to agriculture. Through the archaeological evidence, we can see the intelligence and creativity of the Incans as they navigated the steep Andean Mountains.
The agricultural area is comprised of cultivation terraces that look like large step platforms following the incline of the mountain. These platforms were made of many layers of material such as mulch, sand, and gravel that facilitated drainage and prevented flooding which would cause landslides. Additionally, the steps utilized natural drainage as an irrigation system directly from channels that connected the levels. The terraces also maximized the amount of land Incans were able to use to cultivate crops. The agricultural sector is divided from the urban area of the site by a long 400- meter retaining wall with a water drainage channel to prevent land erosion. By creating these terraces, the Incans could develop and adapt their agricultural practices to the surrounding landscape without worrying about landslides.
Machu Picchu resides in a subtropical climate making the environment mild, warm, and damp. This climate made it perfect for cultivating large amounts of crops. While there is still some debate on if this specific area was where the pinnacle of agricultural innovation occurred, it is true that there were many different types of crops grown at this site leading archaeologists to believe that the indigenous people of the Andes experimented with agriculture more than any other group in the world. In fact, today there are over 3,000 varieties of the potato found in the Andes alone including species such as Pitiquina, Limena, and Phureja. Some of these potatoes were even used to treat headaches and skin rashes. Not to mention the numerous tomato and pepper varieties that we have in the world today. Most of this innovation and variation is due to the experimental agriculture of the Incans and the other indigenous groups that inhabited Central and South America.
So, if you’re looking for someone to thank when you eat mashed potatoes or french fries, it’s probably the Incans. And, if you plan on visiting Machu Picchu make sure you ask the tour guides about the agricultural innovations that occurred on the very land you’re walking on.
Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford