Archaeology Makes Edible Impact Revival of Ancient Agricultural Techniques Make Bolivian Raised-Bed Potato Project Pay

Article excerpt

MORE than 80 members of the tiny, impoverished, Bolivian village of Lakaya are literally digging up their past. Using the outline of mysterious 800-year-old ridges and depressions as their guide, they are constructing, or to be more precise, reconstructing, 100 meter (328 foot) platforms of earth.

"We thought these ridges were just places for the children to play," says Bonifacia Quispe, an Aymara Indian woman wearing the traditional long plaits, bowler hat, and wide skirt. "Now we know better."

Ms. Quispe is the president of a local Mother's Club, one of nearly 50 Indian groups from this 4,000 meter-high, poverty-stricken Andean region that have unlocked an ancient secret of their ancestors - how to grow bumper potato crops.

"We're getting single potatoes up to 1.5 kilos {3.3 pounds} in weight," says Tomas Aranda, a village leader from Lakaya. "Before, our potatoes weighed only 60 grams {2.1 ounces}. Now one plant can produce 60 to 70 potatoes."

Agronomists working with the villagers claim Lakaya now holds the world record for potato yields, an equivalent of 70 tons of potatoes per hectare (2.47 acres), compared with the 2.5 tons the villagers were getting five years ago.

But Quispe, Mr. Aranda, and the villagers use no tractors, no artificial fertilizers, and no large influxes of capital - their technology is pure spades and picks.

"In the last few years, our potatoes and other crops have been affected by frost and hail," Aranda says. "So we decided to build 'raised fields,' like our ancestors, who knew how to stop the weather ruining their crops."

Aranda is one of 2,500 peasant farmers now using the raised fields, or Suka Kollus as they are known in Aymara. Raised fields consist of earth platforms, between 60 and 120 meters (197 to 416 feet) in length and between 3 and 6 meters (about 10 and 20 feet) in width. The earth is taken from canals separating the fields that are 60 centimeters-deep (about 2 1/2 feet).

"During the day, the canals capture the fierce sunlight at this altitude, and keep the temperature of the Suka Kollus up during the freezing night," explains Oswaldo Rivera, the director of the Bolivian Institute of Archaeology, and a constantly joking friend and adviser to the villagers.

"When the temperature drops suddenly, the waters in the canal form a type of capping mist over the fields, like a blanket," Mr. Rivera adds. "And water is drawn up into the soil platform, which heats the roots of the vegetables."

Yet another advantage is that nitrogen-fixing bacteria form a sediment at the bottom of the canals, which can be scraped out in the dry season and used as a rich organic fertilizer.

In 1978, Rivera and a United States academic, Alan Kolata, who is a professor of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Chicago, started to puzzle over the ridges and depressions that stretch like a huge corrugated tin roof over the Koani Pampa, a 35,000-acre area of the Bolivian altiplano.

They were sure the ridges held the key to explaining the vast extent of the Tiwanaku (pronounced Tee-wah-NAH-koo) civilization, which reached its apogee from AD 450 to 800 before collapsing around 1150.

At its peak, the Tiwanaku civilization probably dominated a California-size area of what is now western Bolivia, northern Chile, and southern Peru.

TODAY the valley of Tiwanaku supports a population of only 7,000, whereas a millennium ago Prof. Kolata estimates that it supported more than 250,000 people, and many more beyond the valley. …