Nature Nose: Ancient Agricultural Engineers

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By the Man with a ‘Nose’ for Nature… Sean Sluys

This article launches our technical research & development section on the farm – Nature Engineering!

Progressives in the USA (and elsewhere) tend to romanticize the lifestyles of Native Americans.  We like to view them as having had minimal impact on their environment, living in an Edenic paradise of hills, plains and woodlands.  Just as any complex society, though, they had their own conflicts and questionable practices.

And new evidence shows that they had a much bigger impact on the American landscape than we had ever imagined.  Many ecologists and archeologists today, in fact, believe that there were numerous societies in the pre-Columbian Americas that would not have been able to sustain themselves had their numbers continued to increase.  Modern data even suggests that the reason for the decline of the mighty Mayan kingdoms was exhaustion of natural resources (combined with decades of drought and other unfortunate climactic conditions).

However, there were many more early American societies who established equilibrium with their environment while having just as large an impact.  They not only flourished as human cultures, but helped their surroundings to flourish as well.

In his revolutionary book 1491, Charles C. Mann repaints the history of Native American peoples.  Using the most recent data, it seems that their populations were actually much, much larger than previously inferred: estimates now range from 50 million to 112 million, meaning that when Christopher Columbus “discovered” the West Indies, there might have been more people in the Americas than all of Europe!  And naturally, they actively altered their surroundings on a scale to reflect this.

One of the most interesting sections of the book describes how people settling along the Amazon River used simple yet effective methods of soil building and intercropping to thrive within the rainforest.  Instead of conventional tilling and planting of
annual crops that would die in a season or two, the people of the Amazon replaced the trees of the rainforest with 

perennial trees and bushes they could utilize, implementing a system that supported vast populations for generations.

Permaculture is a form of environmental design seeking to enjoy as high a degree of self-maintenance as possible by emulating natural processes.  Long-lasting trees are often at the forefront of such models.  In the earliest known form of permaculture, the ingenious ecological alterations of these people transformed much of the modern rainforest into an edible jungle that sustained a network of villages with populations from the thousands to even hundreds of thousands.

(Editors note: Saha Astitva is currently researching a type of permaculture called Analog Forestry which maps the architecture of the original forests, similar to the approach outlined above).

Much of the fruit of their orchards is unfamiliar to us, but includes acai berries, wild pineapple, cocopalm, oil palm and peach palm.  Even to this day, in the sections of forest managed the longest, as much as half of the local flora were domesticated and planned.

Generally speaking, modern ecologists believe that 10-20% of the Amazonian rainforest (the world’s second largest biome) is in a sense “artificial”—the biggest orchard in the world!

Almost more interesting than the management of such large swaths of forest are their ancient techniques of soil building.  Due to the high levels of rainfall and annual inundation of the Amazon River, almost all of the nutrients and organic matter in the red soil are drained away, leaving them highly acidic.

However, there are patches where rich, dark soil can be found for acres—and they are all human crafted. Known as terra preta, it is easily identified by the large amount of ceramic shards it contains, used to keep the constructed soils from
washing away. But the secret ingredient is the charcoal.  Its hydroscopic holes provide ideal conditions for microorganisms to thrive.  As much as 675,000km2 to as little as 7800km2 of  Amazonian basin is estimated to be covered in this terra preta—though even the much smaller figure would provide enough arable land to feed millions.


Many years later, farmers are still benefitting from these healthy soils, even though the ancient engineers themselves had utilized them for centuries.

So while any other large-scale farming operation in human history has resulted in diminished soil structure, the stewards of the Amazonian ecosystem drastically increased soil fertility, even over the course of many generations.

All this to say that there is historic proof that even sustainable practices as radical as permaculture can sustain a considerable
population.  Though industrialization has allowed for a population explosion hardly conceivable (as discussed in the last newsletter – see article), it is perfectly reasonable to imagine large segments of people adopting holistic lifestyles and making the world a healthier place; not b leaving as little an impact as possible, but by transforming their surroundings in a manner beneficial to all.

Saha Astitva welcomed the pioneers of Analog Forestry at an event held on 13th May 2013 near Mumbai.  

With this method we aim to begin the research that could well eventually regenerate the Tansa Valley and give much needed rural incomes to poor families.  Essentially encouraging the approach used in this wonderful article. For more information on the event click here

All figures from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Random House, Inc. New York. 2005. Definitely worth a read.


 Other articles by Sean.