The Prehistoric Civilizations of South America

Episode 27: Culture and Empire in South America

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

Benjamin discusses three main South American cultures in this lecture: the pre-Incan coastal and Andean civilizations, the Incan empire and Amazon chiefdoms.

The pre-Incan agrarian civilizations include

  • Chinchoro culture (9000 – 3000 BC) – along modern Chile’s west coast day coastal Chile, where agriculture first emerged along modern Chile’s west coast around 5000 BC. Early Chinchoro crops consisted of corn, beans, peanuts, sweet potatoes and cotton. Mummies discovered here predate those of Egypt by 2,000 years. Chinchoro developed irrigation technology around 2000 BC and left huge monuments consistent with hierarchical governance. Highlands residents grew tobacco and potatoes and domesticated guinea pigs and llamas for meat and alpacas for wool.
  • Chavin (a prehistoric city-state in the Andean highlands of modern day Peru) – first appearing around 1000 BC as a hub surrounding town-states of up to 10,000 inhabitants. Fish and sweet potatoes were abundant in coastal Chavin villages, beans and squash in the foothills and potatoes, lama meet and alpaca wool in the highlands. This culture is associated with the Nazca lines (dated around 100-800 AD), etched into desert bedrock and visible from the upper atmosphere.
  • Mochica – appearing in modern Peru’s coast regions around 700 AD and renowned for superb ceramics and royal tombs. It was destroyed by by drought and earthquakes followed by torrential El Nino rains between 562-594 AD.
  • Wari – ruling from the mountain state of Ayachuko around 1000 AD.
  • Tiwanaku – on Lake Titicaca (altitude 10,000 feet) appearing around 800 AD. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, residents grew potatoes and raised alpaca and llamas for wood and food.
  • Cusco – settled by Incan people around 1050 AD after Tiwanaku collapsed (due to drought?). Around 1250 AD, they were growing crops in mountainside terraces, freeze-drying crops and weaving textiles at an altitude of 13,000 feet.

Forming alliances via marriage, the Incas began military campaigns to expand their territory. Under the rule of Pachecuti (beginning in 1438 AD), the Inca empire stretched from Quito Ecuador to Santiago Chile. With a population of 10 million, it was among the largest agrarian civilizations in the world in the 15th century. Its main crops were potatoes, beans, pepper and corn (reserved for armies and royal households and making beer, owing to difficulty growing it at altitude).

The Incas had no formal writing but used a system of three dimensional knotted strings (called khipu) to convey complicated mathematical and narrative detail. Celibate priests and priestesses who oversaw worship of the sun god and mood goddesses and sacrificed llamas and rarely particularly beautiful children. Their emperor built an elaborate citadel at 8,000 feet called Machu Picchu. Warmer because of its lower altitude, he used it for personal retreats.

Amazon Basis Societies

From 5000 BC Amazonian tribes were growing manioc, sweet potatoes and squash, which they supplemented with fish. From 2000 BC, many settled in agrarian villages, with some evolving into complex societies. From 1000 BC to 1500 AD they were governed by chiefdoms, which unlike true states, weren’t coercive and didn’t collect tribute (or tax). The most noteworthy included Marajo Island in the mouth of the Amazon, which left behind impressive earthen mounds; Santarem, built by the Tapajo people 150 miles upstream, which was ten square miles in area (as large as Tehuacan in Mesoamerica); and Acutuba 150 miles upstream from Santarem. Seventy-five acres in area, Acutuba served as a ceremonial center for a network of towns.

Owing to the extremely poor soil,* early Amazon farmers used biochar combined with feces and fish and bird bones to enrich the soil, leaving behind what appear to be fruit and nut orchards in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Archeologists have also found gold, precious gems, bird feather and medicinal plants among their remains. Following the arrival of Europeans, their populations plummeted and they reverted from agriculture to foraging.

* Torrential rains wash all the nutrients out of Amazonian soil leaving it highly acidic.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.


Combating the Border Crisis by Re-Greening the Mexican Desert

Agave Power Regreening the Desert in Mexico

Regeneration International

Film Review

This documentary concerns an inspirational project to regreen the Mexican desert using agave cactus and mesquite trees. Owing to increasing desertification, 90% of Mexican family farms have ceased to be viable. This virtual collapse of small farm agriculture puts increasing pressuring on Mexican farmers to emigrate to the US.

Farmers participating in the agave project, plant an estimated 1,000 agave cacti per acre with 250 mesquite trees interspersed between them. Planted in a thin layer of compost mixed with biochar,* the agave and mesquite trees (which are nitrogen fixing**) increase water retention up to 70%, while simultaneously increasing soil fertility. The agave pull the moisture they need from the air.

Agave trimming can begin after a year, and the dead leaves are fermented together with protein-rich mesquite pods. The resulting fodder costs 5 cents a day to feed sheep and other herds during Mexico’s eight month dry season.

*Biochar is charcoal that is produced by pyrolysis of biomass in the absence of oxygen. Used to enrich soil carbon, it can endure in soil for thousands of years.

**Nitrogen fixing plants host specialized bacteria on their roots that can pull nitrogen from the atmosphere increase soil nitrogen for plant nutrition.


Regenerative Agriculture: Saving the Planet While Restoring Topsoil and Growing Healthier Food

The Need to Grow

Directed by Rob Herring and Ryan Wirick (2019)

Film Review

This documentary focuses on the Earth’s dwindling supply of topsoil for growing food crops. According to filmmakers, decades of unsustainable agriculture practices have left humankind with only 60 years of farmable soil.

Although most environmentalists agree that modern-day agriculture is the most environmentally destructive process on the planet, the process of soil destruction began around 10,000 years ago when human beings first tilling (plowing) soil they use to grow food. Recent studies show that one tablespoon of healthy topsoil contains one billion microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, etc) are essential to plant health. In nature, all plants and organisms live in complex networks that are destroyed when soil is cultivated.

Because most industrial farming occurs in “dead” soil (where these organisms have been killed), farmers must apply massive amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticide and produce food containing significantly nutrients than crops grown in healthy topsoil. Decades of research reveal that organic farming produces not only produces more nutritious food, but equal or greater yields (measured in calories per acre). Organic farming also consumes 40% less energy, while producing 35% lower carbon emissions.

Most of the film focuses on pioneers in the field of regenerative agriculture, a process dedicated to restoring soil health through “no-till” farming. The high point of the film features a computer programmer who designed a waste disposal system that uses solar energy to convert waste woody biomass into biochar, electricity, and heat to warm greenhouses and algae-producing aquaculture tanks.*

I was also intrigued to learn about the 7-year-old who obtained 45,000 signatures on a petition asking the Girl Scouts of America to discontinue their sales of GMO-containing cookies – and the abominable way she was treated when she visited their New York office to deliver her petition.

*When organic farmers apply the biochar/algae combination to soil, it speeds up topsoil production. Soil experts estimate it accomplishes in 4-5 years what normally takes 400-500 years.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a public library membership. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.