When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico. At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.
Rural Indians and Technological Innovation, From the Chinampas of Xochimilco and Beyond
Agricultural Practices and Environmental Impacts of Aztec and Pre-Aztec Central Mexico
Deborah L. Nichols
The Basin of Mexico is a key world region for understanding agricultural intensification and the development of ancient and historic cities and states. Archaeologists working in the region have had a long-standing interest in understanding the dynamics of interactions between society and environment and their research has been at the forefront of advances in both method and theory. The Basin of Mexico was the geopolitical core of the Aztec empire, the largest state in the history of Mesoamerica. Its growth was sustained by a complex economy that has been the subject of much research. Two themes underlie a broad interest in the pre-Hispanic agriculture of the Basin of Mexico. First, how with a Neolithic technology did the Aztecs and their predecessors sustain the growth of large cites, dense rural populations, and the largest state system in the history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica? Second, what is the relationship of agricultural intensification and urbanization and state formation? Mesoamerica is the only world region where primary civilizations developed that lacked domestic herbivores for either food or transportation. Their farming depended entirely on human labor and hand tools but sustained large cities, dense populations, and complex social institutions. Intensive agriculture began early and was promoted by risk, ecological diversity, and social differentiation, and included irrigation, terracing, and drained fields (chinampas). Most farming was managed by smallholder households and local communities, which encouraged corporate forms of governance and collective action. Environmental impacts included erosion and deposition, but were limited compared with the degradation that took place in the colonial period.