Plant remains tell a two thousand year story of landscape change

Archaeological plant remains from an environmentally degraded valley in the deserts of southern Peru reveal the rise and fall of agricultural production.

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14 Nov 2011

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The Andean foothills bordering the Ica valley

The Andean foothills bordering the Ica valley - home to important crop plant resources (Image: O. Whaley)

Forest restoration for human use in degraded areas is difficult without a knowledge of their ecological history. By understanding the changing relationship between agriculture and natural resources in the past, we can better plan our restoration activities in the present and bring an awareness of the lessons of history to local people.

Oliver Whaley examining archaeological remains
Oliver Whaley examining archaeobotanical remains in the Ica Valley Oliver Whaley )

Scientists study remains

In Peru’s southern desert, scientists from the Instituto de Investigaciones Andinas Punku (Lima), the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (University of Cambridge) and Kew have been studying food and plant remains from ancient settlement sites, spanning roughly 750BC to 1000AD. The findings suggest that, over this time, changing farming techniques and production undermined the natural vegetation so badly that eventually much of the area had to be abandoned.

Rise and fall of agriculture

Over some two millennia, the inhabitants of the lower Ica Valley shifted from subsistence on wild foods, through a period of great agricultural production, before returning again to a diet of largely gathered foodstuffs. This supports earlier interpretations, based on other lines of data, suggesting that farmers gradually rendered their land liable to flooding and erosion by removing the natural dry forest vegetation (predominantly Prosopis and Acacia) to make way for crops. They inadvertently breached critical ecological thresholds beyond which farming was made impossible.

The study helps illustrate how bioarchaeology may assist restoration efforts, both by helping to determine natural vegetation history and by helping identify the links between sustainable crop production and native vegetation.

Item from Oliver Whaley (Honorary Research Associate, RBG Kew)
Kew Scientist 40 (autumn 2011), on-line first


Article reference:

Beresford-Jones, D.G., Whaley, O., Alarco´n Ledesma, C. & Cadwallade, L. (2011). Two millennia of changes in human ecology: archaeobotanical and invertebrate records from the lower Ica valley, south coast Peru. Vegetation History & Archaebotany 20: 271-292.


More on this story

Kew Magazine - Rescue mission

BBC News - Tree planting in the driest place on Earth

The New York Times - Ecosystem in Peru is losing key ally

Geographical - Getting to the root of the problem

Background

Conservation, restoration and sustainable management of dry forest in Southern Peru

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Kew Magazine  - Messages from the past

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