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.

Map icon
View on map: Peru,

14 Nov 2011

  • Close Thanks for liking this page. Tell us why by adding a comment at the bottom.
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


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

Related stories

Kew Magazine  - Messages from the past

Help Kew break new ground and inspire new generations

By making a donation to Kew today you can help our scientists to find out more about the fascinating world of plants, break new ground and inspire generations of young people to get to know plants better.

Our scientific programmes are focused on understanding plants and conserving the world's plant life and habitats at risk. Plants are essential to life on earth. In a world where the sustainability of the planet’s rich biodiversity is becoming less certain, Kew’s science work is ever more critical. Find out how your donation can make a difference.

Give now and support Kew’s vital plant science work

Browse Kew news

No comments on 'Plant remains tell a two thousand year story of landscape change'

See your favourite reasons to visit