Food (and water) for Thought

May 31, 2018

Societies come and go. Yet central to them all is sustained, and shared subsistence followed by (hopefully) increasingly competent organizational leadership – what we have come over time to call “government.” Diverse living examples are spread across the world today and often built directly on top of those have preceded them. Each demonstrating the innovations by which humans have tackled the paired challenge of feeding and leading scaled-societies. And how collective creativity can foster increased productivity. Tucked into the mountain folds of the Peruvian Andes, the remarkably productive and stunningly short (only 300 years) Inca civilization or “Tawantinsuyu” as it was called then is a telling exemplar. Just before its precipitous collapse, it was 12 million citizens strong.

The Inca civilization is perhaps more famous for how in 1533, at the hands and treachery of the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his 180 horsemen, it was swiftly conquered. But the far more fascinating chapters of the Inca 300-year story are those of the Inca’s rise. For as breathtaking as the Andes are in beauty, their imposition on transportation, climate, and agriculture remain formidable to this very day.

In the year just before Pizarro’s expedition had made their way deep into Inca Andean territories. Being tragically preceded with their deadly gift of smallpox, the (what was to become the last) Inca Emperor Atahualpa had just completed quelling a revolt and consolidating his rule. Upon arriving in the Inca capital of Cusco, Pizarro invited the ascendant Emperor to attend a feast organized in his honor. Atahualpa accepted and joined with what is estimated to be several thousand but unarmed Inca soldiers. At dinner, Atahualpa was asked to abdicate his rule to the Spanish Emperor Charles Vth and accept the sovereignty of Christianity as the only and one true religion. After refusing both, Pizarro had his hidden cannons open fire; and his soldiers simultaneously launched a deadly horse-mounted attack. In the chaos that ensued (Incas had never seen guns nor cavalry) thousands were slaughtered and Atahualpa captured.

In exchange for his release, Atahualpa promised and then delivered over 24 tons of Inca gold, in what was then the largest ransom ever paid. But Pizarro reneged. He put Atahualpa on trial for treason against Spain for the murder (of his half-brother) for which he was convicted by a Spanish puppet tribunal on all counts – then handed a swift sentence of “death by fire or strangulation.” He chose the latter and the last breath of their Inca leader and a remarkable Tawantinsuyu sovereign society vanished together – Spain claimed its newest conquest and the so-called “Peru” was etched onto all maps that followed. Although so much had been lost, as the Incas did not have a formal writing system and so much of what had been painstakingly built has since been plundered, what remains provides telling and timeless lessons.

 

Millions visit Peru every year; and all marvel over the Inca’s architectural prowess and stone craft. Though many historic sites are just remnants of their original scale, examples such as mountain-perched Machu Picchu dramatically illustrate the Inca’s inspiring architectural vision coupled with highly detailed engineering and execution skills.

But what can easily go comparatively unnoticed are the Inca terraces – cascades of countless plateaus carved into the sheer mountainside. Each one is topped in imported and carefully enriched soil, often vividly green with growing food crop and all interconnected with vast aqueducts and water flow control systems that feed from mountain aquafers built hundreds of years ago and still working wonderfully even today.

To provide shelter is one thing, but to sustainably feed a rapidly growing population is wholly another. In food production, the Inca were particularly sophisticated with their agricultural terraces being the key enabling innovation. To feed a society of 12 million citizens in the high and arid Andean climate requires extraordinary sophistication and planning. This chapter of Incan history remains vivid in the Peruvian markets and products of today – a region that presently produces over 6,000 distinct varieties of potatoes, as just one of countless examples.

But how, in such extreme climates and topology did the Incas create such extraordinary agriculture diversity and productivity? As you might expect, they focused on scientific methods and attention to detail. One of the more telling examples is Moray, their elegant agricultural laboratory.

Moray is a set of cascading circular terraces that begin at an elevation of 11,500 feet and drop down ~100 feet in precise increments. Although stunning to witness and ponder their construction (by hand and shovel!), the effectiveness of this ancient laboratory is even more telling. Each resulting terrace results in a distinct micro-climate (27 degrees Fahrenheit differential from top terrace to bottom). Each terrace level then being indicative of a specific temperature range that one can expect to extrapolate to the countless other terraces spread across the empire. On the terrace arrays of Moray, each variety of agriculture product could be tested for fitness for a specific micro-climate and the specific planting and harvesting schedules could be precisely optimized. This, coupled to a steady and reliable source of water, enabled the early Incan agricultural experts to shift from experimentation to mass food production.

As we prepare for a climate-changed world where the availability of water is rapidly changing, and mean temperatures shift upward, the prescient planning of the Incas is a wonderful reminder of how creativity can enable productivity, even in the most trying of environments. Clearly, it is (was) hard work and takes long-term planning. But the “mouths of the masses” will always be eagerly waiting.