Peru is home to some of the tallest, bleakest and most challenging mountains in the world, but did that stop the Inca’s becoming one of the world’s most successful farming cultures?
One would think that the snow-capped vertiginous peaks of the Andes, would present an impossible terrain for growing and harvesting crops, yet the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Incas meant they were able to adapt and work in harmony with the land.
Over 5 centuries ago, the Inca’s invented extensive agricultural and irrigation systems, which continue to inspire modern farming techniques throughout the world. By cultivating many different plants for food and medicinal purposes, they developed a vital understanding as to how to work the soil, the art of proper drainage, correct methods of irrigation, and soil conservation by means of terraces constructed at great expense. But what were their secrets to success and which techniques did they use to overcome so many physical barriers?
The Inca’s were largely vegetarian, occasionally supplementing their diet with camelid meat (alpaca or llama) and seafood if they were fortunate. Part of their farming success stemmed from their in-depth knowledge of the optimum conditions for growing different crops and knowing which crops, would survive in these unusually harsh conditions. The three principal crops that the Inca’s lived on were quinoa, potatoes and corn, although they used many other plants for medicinal purposes.
The skill and ingenuity of the Inca agriculturists was shown not only in the cultivation of many kinds of potatoes. Quinoa was a food so vital to the Inca’s it was considered sacred, earning it the name “mother of all grains,” and yet quinoa is not actually a grain, it is a seed. As a complete amino acid, it’s actually a superfood and is highly rich in vitamin C and protein, providing them with the energy to work the fields at altitude. Growing in abundance on the slopes of the high Andes, quinoa had great significance in Inca civilization and as a food source until the conquistadores sent the farmers to the mines, and non-native crops were produced for Spanish consumption.
A long time ago, the Incas found a small plant growing in the high Andes that had a tuberous root. As an edible and a tasty source of food, dozens of varieties of “white potatoes”, evolved over the following centuries and became one of the 3 main dietary supplements for the Incas. Resilient and sturdy the potato is suitable for cultivation at many different altitudes depending on the species and quickly became a staple part of their diet.
The Incas quickly learned that the potato was ideal to be stored through a process of dehydrating and mashing the potatoes into a substance called chuñu. This could then be kept for up to 10 years, providing an alternative food source in the case of ruined crops or a draught.
The skill and ingenuity of the Inca agriculturists was shown not only in the cultivation of many kinds of potatoes, but in the very many varieties of maize, suitable for growing at varying elevations. It remains uncertain as to where the maize was originally derived from, but the Incas had many varieties of maize that were distinct from other regions in Central America or Mexico.
It was from the production of corn that the iconic Peruvian “Chicha de Jora” was born into their culture. The fermented corn beer dates back to the ancient Incan Empire, and is still widely consumed in the Andean highlands for its revered life-sustaining attributes. Once a sacred drink of the Incas, it was often reserved for the most prestigious ceremonies and offered to the “pachamama” or Mother Earth, by spilling it onto the ground below, to thank the fertile land for the corn it produced.
Then Inca’s inquisitive nature brought them to the precious islands that lie off the coast of Peru. Here, they discovered an invaluable source of fertilizer known as “guano”. This manure was produced by the birds that live on these islands, and the rulers of the Inca Empire assigned great value on this commodity restricting access to it, and punishing any disturbance of the birds by death. The Ballestas islands are famous for the nitrogen-rich fertilizer, which is why it became a prime export the nineteenth century. However, restrictions have now been put place as the guano can only be extracted for three months of the year, to ensure the birds remain undisturbed.
The Incan reign was primarily an agricultural society, but unlike modern day farming the Inca farmers did not have domesticated animals or machinery suitable for agricultural work. Instead they relied on manual tools, which were well adapted to the steep mountain terrains of the Andes and to the limited-area platforms on which they farmed. The principal tools that they used included:
• “Chaki taklla” – a foot plough made up of a wooden pole with a sharp point, made from stone or metal. The farmer would use his foot to sink it into the earth and produce a furrow aiding plowing, sowing and building.
• “Rawk’ana” – a hoe used to harvest tubers, to remove weeds and to sow small seeds.
• “Waqtana” – A heavy club like tool used to break up the soil.
With these three basic tools the skilled Andean farmers, had the means to farm the land effectively for thousands of years to come.
At the Incan civilization’s peak in the 1400’s, their terracing system extended over a million hectares in Peru fueling this vast empire. The mountainous valley terrain meant the sun’s rays didn’t reach deep into the valley, and remained cooler at the bottom, but the ingenious usage of steps helped increase the surface area for planting seeds and getting sunlight to reach the crops. Needless to say, carving out these steps on the steep slopes was extremely challenging and a complex procedure. Once put in place the steps would actually secure the slopes against possible landslides and floods, as the rocks used for creating the steps would strengthen the sides of the mountains.
To combat the heavy downpours and make use of the rain, the Inca’s built irrigation canals that snaked down and around the mountains. As the rain fell onto the flat terraces it would run off and be channeled off onto lower parts of the slopes or reused to water other crops. Transforming the landscapes with terracing, canals, and irrigation networks, helped them make the land suitable for farming and avoided annual crop failures securing a ready source of food. One of the best examples of Inca irrigation channels can be seen at Tipón. Built around a spring the 500-acre site near Cusco is one of the few places where the irrigation system is still fully operable, and flows all year round.
The art of agriculture was of utmost interest to the Incas, carrying an extreme importance from which modern day society continues to learn from and unravel new techniques. For a culture that lived over 5 centuries ago, we remain in utter admiration for an empire that was well truly well ahead of its time.