(ORDO NEWS) — The Atacama Desert has a fearsome reputation. The driest, most non-polar desert in the world, located along the Pacific coast of northern Chile, is a Mars-like environment – so extreme that when it rains in this scorched place, even it can bring death instead of life.
Scientists have proven that the ancestors of the Incas collected and transported bird droppings over tens of kilometers so that corn grew much faster and more abundantly.
Yet life, even in the Atacama Desert, finds a way out. Archaeological evidence shows that this hyperarid region supported agriculture many hundreds of years ago. He brought a harvest that allowed him to feed the tribes of pre-Columbian and pre-Inca peoples who once lived on his territory.
“The transition to agriculture began here around 1000 BC. and ultimately supported permanent villages and a large part of the population of the region,” writes a team of scientists led by bioarcheologist Francisco Santana-Sagredo from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in a new study. However, they ask the question: how did such a development of events become possible in extreme environmental conditions?
Thanks to Santana Sagredo and her team, we have the solution to the puzzle. It was previously known that the use of ancient irrigation technologies could be part of this charade, but the availability of water alone would not be the only prerequisite for a successful agricultural system in the Atacama Desert.
Based on a previous study by part of the same team—an analysis of chemical isotopes preserved in pre-Inca human bones and teeth—the researchers hypothesized that fertilizers contributed greatly to crop growth. Well, now they have fresh evidence supporting this hypothesis.
A total of 246 ancient plants were analyzed – specimens well-preserved thanks to the dryness of the Atacama – including corn, chili, pumpkin, beans and quinoa. Using radiocarbon dating data as well as isotopic composition testing, scientists have seen a dramatic increase in nitrogen isotopes starting around 1000 AD. – a rate so high that it has never been observed in plants in the wild, with the exception of some plants in the Antarctic, in the nesting areas of seabirds.
Among the plants tested, maize contained the most nitrogen, which around 1000 AD. became the most widely consumed crop in the region. The researchers say the “most plausible explanation” for the jump in nitrogen values is ancient bird droppings known as guano, which have been used as fertilizer for thousands of years.
While the fertilizing capabilities of seabird guano (also known as “white gold”) could take this ancient crop’s farming to the next level, manure production was not an easy (and enjoyable) job. “Prior to [AD 1000], the population may have used other types of local fertilizers such as llama manure, but the introduction of guano we believe caused a significant intensification of agricultural practices, leading to an increase in crop production, especially maize. , which quickly became one of the staple foods of humans,” the researchers explain.
“This shift is also remarkable given the labor costs of humans (and llamas)—the guano had to be painstakingly collected from the coast and transported some 100 km inland!” they note.
This seems to be what the desert dwellers of Chile did, and historical evidence from later centuries suggests that the practice continued into the era of European conquest. Previously, we simply did not have any evidence that this custom originated over a whole millennium ago.
“While early historical accounts stated that guano was fairly distributed among each village, the same sources state that access to guano was strictly regulated, guaranteeing the death penalty for those who obtained more than allowed or entered the territory of their neighbor’s guano – this emphasizes the high value of the substance,” the team explains.
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