Recreating Raised Field Agriculture in Bolivia and Peru

An Interview with Clark Erickson

Raised Fields at Huatta
Raised fields during the growing season in the Community of Segunda Collana, Huatta. Clark Erickson

A Lesson in Applied Archaeology


The land of the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia was long thought to be unproductive agriculturally. Archaeological projects in the high Andes around Lake Titicaca have documented a vast complex of agricultural earthworks, referred to as "raised fields," that supported ancient civilizations in the region. The raised fields were first used around 3000 years ago and were abandoned before or at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. The raised fields cover a total of 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of land, and represent an almost unimaginable effort.

In the early 1980s, archaeologist Clark Erickson, Peruvian agronomist Ignacio Garaycochea, anthropologist Kay Candler, and agricultural journalist Dan Brinkmeier began a small experiment in the Huatta, a Quechua-speaking community of farmers near Lake Titicaca. They persuaded some local farmers to rebuild a few of the raised fields, plant them in indigenous crops, and farm them using traditional methods. The "Green Revolution," which attempted to impose inappropriate western crops and techniques in the Andes, had been a miserable failure.

The archaeological evidence suggested that raised fields might be more appropriate for the region. The technology was indigenous to the region and it had been successfully used by farmers in the distant past. On a small scale, the experiment was considered successful, and today, some farmers are once again using the technology of their ancestors to produce food. Recently, Clark Erickson discussed his work in the Andean highlands and his new project in the Bolivian Amazon.

Can you tell us what led you to first investigate the ancient farming techniques of Lake Titicaca?

I've always been fascinated by farming. When I was kid, my family spent summers on my grandparents’ farm in upstate New York. I never thought that I'd be able to study farmers as a career. Ancient agriculture seems to be a topic that would give me the chance to investigate what Eric Wolf has called "the people without history." The common folk who made up most of the population in the past have long been ignored by archaeologists and historians.

Landscape and farming studies can contribute to our understanding of the sophisticated indigenous knowledge and technology developed by rural peoples of the past.

The rural situation today in the Lake Titicaca Basin of highland Peru and Bolivia is similar to other areas of the developing world. Families often live below poverty level; migration from the countryside to the regional urban centers and capital is an ongoing process; infant mortality rates are high; lands farmed continuously for generations have lost their ability to support growing families. Development and relief aid that has been poured into the region appears to have had little effect on resolving the serious problems faced by rural families.

In contrast, archaeologists and ethnohistorians have documented that the region supported dense urban populations in the past and several important precolumbian civilizations originated and thrived there. The hillslopes are criss-crossed with terrace walls and the surfaces of the lake plains are covered with raised fields, canals, and sunken gardens indicating that this was once a highly productive agricultural "breadbasket" for the south central Andes.

Some of the agricultural technology and crops developed by the past farmers have survived to the present, but most of the field systems lie abandoned and forgotten. Could archaeology be used to resurrect this ancient knowledge of production?

A Lesson in Applied Archaeology

Did you expect the success you’ve achieved, or did the program begin simply as experimental archaeology?

Finding out that an archaeological study of the raised fields could have an applied component was a surprise to me. In the original proposal for my doctoral research, I had included a section in the budget (around $500) to do some "experimental archaeology." The idea was to rebuild some of the raised fields and plant them in native crops of the zone 1) to understand how the fields functioned to protect crops against the harsh altiplano environment, 2) to find out how much labor is involved in the construction and upkeep of raised fields, 3) to determine the level of social organization needed to plan, build and maintain raised fields (individual, family, community, state?), and 4) to get an idea of crop production possible using this form of agriculture. Since the raised fields had been abandoned and the technology forgotten, an experimental archaeology project appeared to be a good means of finding out some basic information about the farming technique.

We were the first group to try raised field experiments in the Andes and the first to apply it in a small-scale rural development project involving local communities of farmers. Our small team was made up of Peruvian agronomist Ignacio Garaycochea, anthropologist Kay Candler, agricultural journalist Dan Brinkmeier, and myself. The real credit goes to the Quechua farmers of Huatta and Coata who actually did the experiments in raised field agriculture.

Thanks to the efforts numerous colleagues including Bill Denevan, Patrick Hamilton, Clifford Smith, Tom Lennon, Claudio Ramos, Mariano Banegas, Hugo Rodridges, Alan Kolata, Michael Binford, Charles Ortloff, Gray Graffam, Chip Stanish, Jim Mathews, Juan Albarracín, and Matt Seddon, our knowledge of prehistoric raised field agriculture in the Lake Titicaca region has grown immensely. Although this is probably the best-studied prehistoric agricultural system in all of the Americas, the specifics of raised field chronology, functions, social organization, and role in the origins and collapse of civilizations are still hotly debated.

A Lesson in Applied Archaeology

What are raised fields?

Raised fields are large artificial platforms of soil created to protect crops from flooding. They are generally found in areas of permanent high water table or seasonal flooding. The addition of earth for drainage also increases the depth of the rich topsoil available to plants. In the process of building raised fields, canals are excavated adjacent to and between fields. These depressions fill with water during the growing season and provide irrigation when necessary. Decomposing aquatic plants and nutrients captured in the canals provide a fertile "muck" or "green manure" for periodically renewing the soils of the platforms. We found that in the high Andes where "killer" frost is a serious problem at night, the water in the canals of raised fields helps to store the sun’s heat and blanket the fields in warm air at night—protecting crops against the cold. Raised fields have been found to be highly productive, and if managed properly, can be planted and harvested for many years.

The most famous raised fields are the "chinampas" or so-called "floating gardens" (they don’t actually float!) built by the Aztecs of Mexico. These fields are still being farmed today, on a greatly reduced scale, to raise vegetables and flowers for the urban markets of Mexico City.

How are raised fields built?

Raised fields are essentially big piles of dirt. They are created by digging into the top soil and raising a large, low platform. The farmers that we worked with have a lot of experience building with sod. They use the chakitaqlla (chah key talk’ ya) to cut square blocks of sod and use them just like adobes (mud bricks) to build walls, temporary houses, and corrals. They decided that the fields would look better and last longer if the retaining walls were made of sod blocks. They placed irregular chunks of sod and loose soil between the walls to build up the field. The sod had an additional benefit in that sod in the walls actually took root and formed a "living wall" which kept the fields from eroding.

Whenever possible, we rebuilt or "rehabilitated" the ancient fields, keeping the old patterns of fields and canals intact. There were several clear advantages of doing this 1) rebuilding meant less work than creating completely new fields, 2) the organic-rich soils in the old canals (used to raise the platforms) was very fertile, and 3) the ancient farmers probably knew what they were doing (so why change things?).