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Amazonian Harvest Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008
by Mara Hvistendahl

Can prehistoric farming methods lead us to a sustainable future?


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Erickson (blue shirt, center) oversees excavation trenches that cut across pre-Columbian causeways and raised fields. (Courtesy Clark Erickson)

Clark Erickson is picking his way through the Bolivian Amazon, which teems with snakes and malarial mosquitoes, when the visions start. This is the rain forest, seemingly a raw, untouched tangle of exotic plants and colorful birds. But for Erickson, an anthropologist-turned-archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, it is not the pristine wilderness it seems, but a heavily managed landscape. He reaches for a tree laden with mustard-colored fruit and seizes a waxy, oblong leaf. "This is like finding potsherds," he says. The leaf belongs to the cacao tree, which grows throughout this part of the country, the Beni, in circular patches called forest islands--telltale signs, he believes, of early settlement.

Erickson has worked in Bolivia and Peru for three decades, and he hopes his research will bring the lessons of the past to bear on the present, perhaps guiding sustainable agriculture here and across the globe. He is part of a growing group of archaeologists who are engaging and helping shape the communities in which they work, but a few decades ago, other scholars would have thought him crazy.

The Beni is dominated by an erratic landscape called the Llanos de Mojos, where pockets of rain forest taper abruptly into savanna. It is the dry season now, but for half the year rain blankets the region and water creeps to the edges of the forest islands before receding into tributaries that feed the Amazon. When the water retreats, it takes nutrients with it, leaving sandy brown soil inadequate for most crops. Today, locals regularly employ slash-and-burn agriculture, a technique introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 1600s. Without this method, archaeologists long believed, the area's climate and soil would make it largely uninhabitable by a significant number of people. Erickson sees something different: 30,000 square miles dotted with round forest islands somehow spared from the annual floods. To him, the raw jungle is crisscrossed with signs of human interference.


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A number of experimental farm projects have been started as a result of Erickson's research. This one, at the Kenneth Lee Ethno-Archaeological Museum in Trinidad, Bolivia, uses raised fields to grow promising yields of maize. (Garin Fons)

Crammed in a Cessna, flying low over the savanna, Erickson and archaeologist Peter Stahl frantically snap photos. When the plane descended to an outpost north of Baures to drop off eggs and chickens, Erickson spotted five D-shaped ditches. As we pass over them again, the scientists hurry to capture images that might help in their research. A few minutes later, we spot large rectangular depressions--rice paddies. Erickson says he's glad to see people farming the savanna, something he's been fighting for since 1990, but the paddies use conventional methods such as pesticides and mechanization. He also worries about bulldozing before archaeologists have a chance to explore. "They're destroying the vestiges of pre-Columbian agriculture," he yells over the roar of the propeller.

Since his experiments in the 1990s, Erickson has grown hesitant about getting too involved in local agriculture, but the people of Baures may do it themselves. "If we were to apply [pre-Columbian] techniques, it would be much better for the world," Ferrier Toledo tells me from his porch overlooking the square. "We have a lot of land in the savanna that we aren't using." In his vision, cacao won't be the only crop to benefit from early farming techniques. He sees forest islands supplemented with raised fields of corn, tobacco, beans, and pumpkin--an agricultural cornucopia that will enrich the earth for future generations.

Mara Hvistendahl is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.

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