Accepted Paper:

Pre-Columbian raised-field agriculture in Amazonian Bolivia -- What lessons for sustainable land use today?   


Francis Mayle (University of Reading)
Bronwen Whitney (Northumbria University Newcastle)
Ruth Dickau (HD Analytical Solutions, Inc.)
Jose Iriarte (University of Exeter)

Paper short abstract:

We use an integrative approach to examine pre-Columbian raised-field agriculture in the seasonally-flooded savannas of the Bolivian Amazon. We examine the extent to which these historical insights may hold lessons for poverty alleviation and sustainable land use in the future.

Paper long abstract:

The seasonally-flooded savannas (Llanos de Moxos) of Amazonian Bolivia are a sparsely populated landscape, roughly the size of England, and home to some of the poorest communities in South America. Although prime cattle-ranching country, the impermeable seasonally-flooded clay soils are considered unsuitable for arable farming. The discovery by William Denevan in the late 1950s of vast areas of Pre-Columbian (pre-AD1492) agricultural raised fields across much of this region was therefore remarkable and completely unexpected. Here, we present integrated palaeoecological and archaeobotanical data which reveal the complex land-use history of these ancient raised fields. Although manioc is the dominant staple crop across Amazonia today (due in part to its tolerance of poor soils), we find that nutrient-demanding maize was a staple crop on these ancient raised fields, indicating that pre-Columbian farmers must have improved soil fertility to permit its cultivation. Land-use practice changed through time. Burning was common prior to AD1300 but appears to have been suppressed subsequently, as sweet potato was brought into cultivation alongside maize. Agriculture declined following the European Encounter, although we find evidence of sweet potato cultivation as late as AD 1800. We explore the potential role of past climate change in driving some of these land-use changes and consider the feasibility of re-introducing raised-field agriculture as a means of poverty alleviation in the context of future climate change, and in the light of recent NGO-funded experimental raised-field initiatives.

Panel P31
Indigenous populations-vegetation-climate relationship in the past: what can this teach us about sustainable vegetation use in the present?