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The Hidden Fields of Peru

Posted On July 11, 2017 | 11:39 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Ari Caramanica searches for agricultural traces in the Pampa de Mocan

Ari Caramanica, a PhD student in anthropology at Harvard University, is a Tyler fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. Caramanica’s research uses remote sensing techniques and paleobotanical analysis to reconstruct agricultural landscapes in coastal Peru. Since 2013, she has worked in the Pampa de Mocan, a desert area located on the north coast of Peru whose arid conditions conceal a rich history of agricultural activity in pre-Hispanic Peru.  

Brief Q&A with Ari Caramanica

You talked a lot about temporales, essentially temporary fields that spring up for a short period of time and are intensely cultivated. Could you describe temporales a little more, in the sense of when they spring up, and how they come into existence?

So there’s some history to the phenomenon—it’s been observed in the ethnographic record. The idea, basically, is to take advantage of a florescence of water during periodic episodes of El Niño, at a time when the inner valley infrastructure has probably been breached by major floods. Essentially, people go out into the desert margins and take advantage of this newly available resource of water. Because the soils out there are so loose, it doesn’t cause the same type of effect in terms of massive floods and mudslides.

 

You also talked about “fossil fields.” Would you mind explaining their significance?

This is another phenomenon that is pretty unique to the north coast of Peru. Because of the arid environment there, you end up with these extremely delicate but extremely legible markings on the landscape that represent ancient furrows, ancient canals—ancient agriculture. But they’re also very easily disturbed and destroyed; a lot of them are undergoing destruction as we speak, as modern urban centers continue to expand into the desert, and industrial agricultural companies and corporations are actively trying to cultivate the desert again with the help of modern water pumps.

 

How did these get discovered? In your talk you discussed aerial photography—did that aid the discovery of the fossil fields?

Aerial photography on the north coast really gets going during the Second World War, but it’s not terribly sophisticated technology—it’s a guy in a plane with a camera going along at about ten thousand meters or so. The resolution of these photos doesn’t give us the fields, but it does give us the bigger canals. So there have actually been people who looked at those pictures, saw the canals, and said, “Isn’t this amazing? Too bad it was never brought to its full fruition.” Because you can’t see the fields themselves in those photos. Some of the photos I showed during my talk were actually drone photos that we took, and you could see the fields. That’s a drone that’s being flown at a max of two hundred meters, but really more like fifty meters. But you’re absolutely right, when you’re on the ground and trying to discern what’s around you, it’s actually kind of difficult to see, if you don’t know what the patterns are.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.