Prehispanic Raised Field Agriculture:
Applied Archaeology in the Bolivian Amazon

Prehispanic Raised Fields

Prehispanic raised fields in the savannas of the Llanos de Moxos of Bolivia. The elevated planting platforms are 20 meters wide, 0.2-1 meter tall, and up to 600 meters long.

Until about 30 years ago, Western academic opinion agreed that the Amazon Basin could never have sustained large populations; due to the limitations of a tropical environment, the area could support only hunting and gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture. Subsequent archaeological research proved this opinion wrong. The savannas and forest of the Bolivian Amazon were, in fact, once densely populated by well-organized societies, and precolumbian farmers heavily modified the landscape. In the early 1960s, William Denevan, George Plafker, and Kenneth Lee uncovered evidence of massive earthworks in the savannas of the Llanos de Moxos (or Mojos), including raised fields, canals, causeways, reservoirs, dikes and mound settlements. A joint "applied archaeology" project involving the Inter-American Foundation, the Parroquia of San Ignacio, the Bolivian Institute of Archaeology, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology has developed an experimental program to put raised-field agriculture back into use.

Shallow floodwaters cover much of the low-lying lands in the Llanos de Moxos during part of the rainy season. The rest of the year, dry conditions prevail and water is scarce. The alternation between seasonal flooding and seasonal drought, combined with poor soil conditions and lack of drainage, make farming in these areas difficult. The ancient inhabitants of the area created an agricultural landscape to solve these problems and make the area highly productive. They constructed a system of raised fields, or large planting surfaces of earth elevated above the seasonally flooded savannas and wetlands. Experiments have shown that the raised fields improve soil conditions and provide localized drainage and the means for water management, nutrient production, and organic recycling.

Experiments in raised-field agriculture began in 1990 at the Biological Station of the Department of the Beni in Bolivia. Because of its success, the project expanded into indigenous communities of the region. During 1993, the communities of Bermeo and Villa Esperanza decided to collaborate. They donated land, and the Inter-American Foundation provided funds to pay community members a small daily wage to build and maintain the fields.

The raised fields have produced impressive harvests of manioc and maize. Community members carefully record data on each field to see whether these high levels can be sustainable over a long period of continuous cropping makes raised field farming a labor-efficient technology. Little maintenance is necessary to keep the fields in production. Many areas with similar conditions throughout lowland tropical Latin America could be farmed using raised-field technology. Highly productive raised-field farming could provide sustainable agricultural development for local communities and offer an alternative to cutting down the rainforest.

Construction of Experimental Raised Fields

Construction of experimental raised fields in the Community of Bermeo,
Department of the
Beni, Bolivia. The fields were designed based on ancient raised field patterns determined from archaeology excavation and mapping. The work was done by family groups using hand tools to raised the planting platforms.

Adapted from Erickson, Clark L. 1994 Raised Fields for Sustainable Agriculture in the Bolivian Amazon. In 1994 Festival of American Folklife: Culture and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Applied Archaeology: Peru (raised fields, waru waru)

o        The Lost Art of the Waru Waru: A short article on Andean raised fields.

o        Neo-environmental determinism and agrarian "collapse" in Andean prehistory (1999 article)

o        Applied Archaeology and Rural Development: Archaeology's Potential Contribution to the Future (1998 article)

o        Raised Field Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin: Putting Ancient Andean Agriculture Back to Work (1988 article)

o        The Lake Titicaca Basin: A Precolumbian Built Landscape (2000 article)

o        Defining the Prehispanic AndeanCommunity: An Application of the Archaeology of Landscapes

o        Kris Hirst's recent Internet interview with Clark Erickson about "applied archaeology"

§         Part I of Interview: "Introduction"

§         Part II of Interview: "Recreating Raised Field Agriculture"

§         Part III of Interview: "Implications of the Research"

Applied Archaeology: Bolivia (raised fields, camellones, earthworks)

o        Bird’s-Eye View of the Amazon: Airborne Archaeologist Challenges Myth of a Pristine Wilderness. A short article about Clark Erickson’s research on the archaeology of landscapes and historical ecology in the Bolivian Amazon (Penn Arts and Sciences News, Spring 2004, pp. 18-21.

o        Earthmovers of the Amazon and The Good Earth: Did People Improve the Amazon Basin? Two articles published in Science by Charles Mann summarizing new archaeological finds in the Bolivian Amazon.

o        Pre-Columbian Fish Farming in the Amazon. Expedition. 43(1):7-8 (2001)

o        An Artificial Landscape-scale Fishery in the Bolivian Amazon. Nature 408:190-193 (Nov. 7, 2000).

o        Lomas de ocupacion en los Llanos de Moxos. (Settlement Mounds in the Llanos de Moxos) (2000 book chapter)

o        Archaeological Perspectives on Ancient Landscapes of the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon (1995 article)

o        Sistemas agrícolas prehispánicos en los Llanos de Mojos (my first published article, a bit out of date)

o         Farming Lessions from Prehistory An short article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education with additional images from Bolivia

o        Prehispanic Earthworks of the Baures Region of the Bolivian Amazon Some Recent Research on a relatively unknown area of Bolivia

o        Archaeologist helps bring old Technique to Life A short article by Esaul Sanchez published in Compass Magazine.

o        Raised Fields as a Sustainable Agricultural System from Amazonia An unpublished paper presented in the Symposium "Recovery of Indigenous Technology and Resources in Bolivia" at the XVIII International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, 1994, Atlanta, GA.

o        International Center for the Investigation and Development of the Llanos de Moxos

o        Centro Internacional para la Investigacion y Desarrollo de los Llanos de Moxos

o        Fundación para la Ciencia y el Desarrollo Sostenible del Beni (Fundación Kenneth Lee)

o        Foundation for Science and Sustainable Development of the Beni (Kenneth Lee Foundation)

o        Tribute to Kenneth Lee (1927-1999)

o        Bibliografía de las Etnias del Oriente: Huge Bibliography of Ethnic Groups in Eastern Bolivia (U. Católica Boliviana)

o        Tribute to Dr. William Denevan by Greg Knapp

o        Bibliography of William Denevan

o        Amazonian Bibliography (archaeology, ethnography, history) by Jeff Parsons

Historical Ecology, Archaeology of Landscapes

o        The Archaeology of Landscapes: An Introduction A short statement on the Archaeology of Landscapes and some basic bibliography.

o        The Archaeology of Landscapes. On-line Syllabus for a Graduate Seminar at the U. of Pennsylvania (taught Spring of 1999 and Spring of 2001)

o        Native Peoples and the Environment. On-line Syllabus for a Freshmen Seminar at the U. of Pennsylvania (taught Fall of 2000)

o        The Pristine Myth by William Denevan (one of the classic publications in historical ecology)

o        Gardenification of Wildland Nature and How to Absorb the Human Footprint by Dan Janzen

o        Conference on Structure and Meaning in Human Settlements. U. Penn, October 19 - 21, 2000.

o        The Historical Dimensions of Environment. A short essay by Carole Crumley for the National Science Foundation.

o        Historical Ecology: Carole Crumley

o        Dynamic landscapes and socio-political process. Essay by Christopher T. Fisher & Tina L. Thurston (Antiquity 1999)

o        The Historical Ecology of Global Climate Change. Essay by Carole Crumley

The Llanos de Moxos (Mojos), Bolivian Amazon

o        Center for Amazonian Literature and Culture.

o        La Palabra. On-line Newspaper from Trinidad, Beni, Bolivia

Some Basic Bibliography on the Prehispanic Cultures

of the Llanos de Moxos (Llanos de Mojos)

Arnold, Dean

1989 Aboriginal Earthworks near the Mouth of the Beni, Bolivia. Journal of Field Archaeology 15:457-465.

Block, David

1994 Mission Culture on the Upper Amazon: Native Tradition, Jesuit Enterprise, and Secular Policy in Moxos, 1660-1880. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Denevan, William

1966 The Aboriginal Cultural Geography of the Llanos de Mojos of Bolivia. Iberoamericano, University of California, Berkeley.

1980 La geografía cultural aborigen de los llanos de Mojos. Juventud, La Paz.

Dougherty, Bernardo and Horacio Calandra

1981 Nota preliminar sobre investigaciones arqueológicas en los Llanos de Moxos, Departamento del Beni, Republica de Bolivia. Revista del Museo de la Plata 8(Sección Antropológica no. 53):87-106, La Plata.

1981-2 Excavaciones arqueológicas en la Loma Alta de Casarabe, Llanos de Moxos, Departamento del Beni, Bolivia. Relaciones de la Sociedad Argentina de Antropología, 14(2):9-48, Buenos Aires.

1984 Prehispanic Human Settlement in the Llanos de Mojos, Bolivia. In Quaternary of South America and Antarctic Peninsula volume 2, edited by Jorge Rabassa, pp. 163-199, A. D. Balkema, Rotterdam.

1985 Ambiente y arqueología en el oriente Boliviano. La Provincia Itenez del departamento del Beni. Relaciones de la Sociedad Argentina de Antropología, Buenos Aires.

Erickson, Clark L.

2001  Pre-Columbian Fish Farming in the Amazon. Expedition. 43(1):7-8. [view or download]

2000 An Artificial Landscape-scale Fishery in the Bolivian Amazon. Nature 408:190-193. [view or download]

2000    Lomas de ocupacion en los Llanos de Moxos. IN Arqueologia de Tierras Bajas. Edited by Alicia Duran Coirolo and Roberto Bracco Boksar, Comision Nacional de Arqueologia, Ministerio de Educacion y Cultura, Montevideo, Uruguay, pp. 207-226. [view or download]

1995 Archaeological Perspectives on Ancient Landscapes of the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon. In Archaeology in the American Tropics: Current Analytical Methods and Applications. edited by Peter Stahl, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. [view or download]

1980 Sistemas agrícolas prehispánicos en los Llanos de Mojos. América Indígena. 40(4):731-755. Mexico. [view or download]

Erickson, Clark L., José‚ Esteves, Wilma Winkler, and Marcos Michel

1991 Estudio preliminar de los sistemas agrícolas precolombinos en el departamento del Beni, Bolivia. unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania and the Instituto Nacional de Arqueología.

Erickson, Clark L, W. Winkler, J. Walker, K. Candler, D. Angelo, M. Michel 1993

Informe preliminar sobre las investigaciones del Proyecto Agro-Arqueológico del Beni en 1992. unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania and the Instituto Nacional de Arqueología.

1994 La arqueología de la agricultura de camellones y la infraestructura hidráulica en el departamento del Beni en 1993: Informe preliminar de las investigaciones arqueológicas del Proyecto Agro-Arqueológico del Beni en 1993 unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania and the Instituto Nacional de Arqueología.

Langstroth, Robert

1996 Forest Islands in an Amazonian Savanna of Northeastern-Bolivia. Ph. D. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Lathrap, Donald W.

1970 The Upper Amazon. Praeger, London.

Lijerón Casanovas, Arnaldo

1998    Mojos-Beni: Introducción a la historia amazónica. Editorial RB, Trinidad, Bolivia.

Metraux, Alfred

1942 The Native Tribes of Eastern Bolivia and Western Matto Grosso Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, no. 134, Washington D.C.

Nordenskiold, Erland

1910 Archaologische Forschungen im Bolivianischen Flachland. Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie 42:806-822, Berlin.

1913 Urnengraber und Mounds im Bolivianischen Flachlande. Baessler Archiv 3:205-255, Berlin y Leipzig.

1916 Die Anpassung der Indianer an die Verhltnisse in den Uberschwemmungsgebieten in Sudamerika. Ymer 36:138-155 (Stockholm).

1924a The Ethnography of South America as seen from Mojos in Bolivia Comparative Ethnological Studies, no. 3, Goteborg.

1924b Finds of Graves and Old Dwelling-Places on the Río Beni, Bolivia Ymer 44:229-237 (Stockholm).

Pinto Parada, Rodolfo

1987 Pueblo de Leyenda. Tiempo del Bolivia, Trinidad.

Plafker, George

1963 Observations on Archaeological Remains in Northeastern Bolivia. American Antiquity 28:372-378.

You are the Countervisitor to this page