Was Early Agriculture Sustainable?
Examples from:
• Easter Island
• Maya Society
• Norse Greenland
Easter Island
• Human environmental impacts
Population pressure
Depletion of native bird population
• Political, social and religious factors
Statue construction
Power struggle among chiefs
The Island
2300 miles west
of Chile
1300 miles east
of Pitcairn Island
66 square km
One of the most
isolated island
in the Pacific
Spotted by white
man on Easter
day in 1722
• Settled by 900 AD or before
• Came from Asia, settled The Pacific from
12.000 BC to 900 AD?
• Polynesians masters of canoeing and
• The first major over-water exploration
• Or settled by South American Indians?
• Statue building similar, red beards
What the first white man saw
A barren sandy land
Not a tree above 3 m
An impression of poverty
No boats or canoes
A lot of huge stone
• Only a few thousand
The foreground (in town) you can see Moai, the
background shows how barren it is once you
leave town.
Motu Nui: about 2 miles off the southern end.
Sea birds would nest here and islanders would
see who could swim back with the first egg and
become the Birdman of the Year.
There are not many trees outside of town, this is one
of the few. According to the movie “Rapanui”, all the
trees were used to transport the moai.
What the first white man saw
• Around the crater’s were 397
stone statues
• 15-20 feet tall, biggest 70 feet
• 10 to 270 tons
• Network of 25 feet transport road
9 miles to the coast
• Along the road further 97
abandoned statues
• Along the coast 300 platforms and
393 more statues
What the first white man saw
• “The stone images at first caused us to be stuck with
astonishment, because we could not comprehend how it was
possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick
timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes,
nevertheless had been able to erect such images, which were
fully 30 feet high and thick in proportion”.
is: How
did they
move the
Thor Heyerdahl’s Team
This is how a statue was set up. First it is lifted into
the air on a growing heap of stones, while the
mayor stands on the wall directing the work.
He possesses the whole secret, handed
down for 11 generations
With a heap of stones under its stomach the figure
moves upwards and backwards until it stands in its
old place on the wall. 12 Men with poles and
stones set it up in 18 days.
On the last day the giant is held by ropes to
prevent it from toppling off the high wall
when it is tilted into the standing position.
The Questions
• But how could they have
done it - It would have
• big trees to transport and
rope for handling
• A complex society with many
people with different skills as
many as 15,000
• Organized food production to
give time and energy
What did the first settlers of Easter
Island find and how did they live
• Prior to human arrival
dense vegetation
more than 22 tree species
a thriving birdlife
many lizards
Stand of the Chilean Wine Palm
A now extinct palm related to the Chilean Wine Palm grew in
abundance on the island
65 feet tall
3 feet in diameter
On Easter evidence of 7 feet
Might have been 150 feet tall
The sweet zap used for wine
Or boiled down to honey or
• The fonds are good for house
thatching, baskets, mats and
boat sails
• Trunks for rollers for transport
of statues and canoe building
• Nut kernels are oily
The Canoe They Built with the
Chilean Palm
the Hauhau
A lowland tree found in many warm countries.
The light, tough, wood was:
• Used as outriggers for canoes,
• Was the best for rope,
• The sap and flowers was used for medicine.
• Provided protection as windbreak
• Rope production
Easter Islanders used the Bark of the
Paper Mulberry Tree for Making Cloth
The bark is stripped from young saplings, and
the white inner layers are peeled off for the
tapa. These narrow strips are soaked in
water until softened; then they are pounded
with grooved mallets, which spreads the bark
into increasingly wider strips until they are
about ten inches wide. The edges are
overlapped and glued with manioc root juice,
breadfruit, or arrowroot starch to make wide
Malay Apple Tree
Condition for Agriculture
Climate difficult for its new inhabitants
They came from more tropical areas
Their imported crops could not grow
Low rainfall and cool climate
A windy place
The isolated position meant that there were
few fish species (127 compared to more than
1000 at Fiji)
• Needed to find new ways of producing food
Lithic Mulch Gardening
• Stone lined pits 5-8 feet in diameter and up
to 4 feet deep used for composting pits in
which to grow crop. The stones
• reduced evaporation increasing soil moisture
• absorbed heat during the day and released it
during the night
• Protected against soil erosion
• Might have provided important minerals
• They also build stone dams across the stream
for irrigation
Advantages of Lithic Mulch
• Mulched soil ended up with double the soil
moisture content
• Lower max soil temp during the day
• Higher min soil temp during the night
• And higher yields for 16 plant species grown
(4 timer higher yields average over the 16
species, 50 times higher yields for the
species benefiting the most)
Lithic Mulch Gardening
Organization of Society
• A number of Clans with Chiefs divided the
island in a pie shape
• Some collaboration between Chiefs to allow
statue building, transport and fishing
• People lived in villages near the coast with
chicken production
• Farmed inland and commuted when work
was required
• Otherwise worked on the statues for the
chiefs in return for prosperity
Chicken House: Hare Moa
So what happened
• Population pressure and statue building caused
the Islanders to undermine their own existence
• Chiefs competed for the biggest statues and the
most statues
• Timber used for canoes for fishing, firewood, and
importantly statue building resulting in
• The most extreme example of forest destruction in
The Pacific and possible The World
• The whole forest gone and all tree species extinct
Consequences of Deforestation
• Soil erosion and loss of fertility and soil
• Lack of timber for building sea worthy
canoes needed for fishing
• Lack of building material
• Lack of firewood
• Loss of habitat for birds and lizards
• Loss of most sources of wild food
• Loss of material for compost (fertilizer)
Breeding Sites
Over harvest of native seabirds leading to the loss of at least
six birth spices
Birds that Were Over
Harvested: Booby
Birds that Were Over ‘Harvested’:
Social disintegration
Lack of food resulted in
• Starvation and cannibalism
• A population crash
• Deterioration of social structures, as
• Chiefs and priests failed in delivering their
promise of prosperity loosing their status
• Political unrest resulting in rivaling clans
toppling and breaking statues
Lack of food let to starvation, a
population crash and cannibalism
Since then
• European deceases such as smallpox killed
up to 7 out of 8
• ‘Black-birding’ after 1805 from Peru
abducted 1500 people (half the remaining
population) to work in guano mines etc.
• By 1872 only 111 islanders left on the
Our knowledge of the Maya world
• Surviving written record available
• Limited due to destruction by Spanish
Bishop in 1549 to 1578 to eliminate
• Many people survived the collapse and still
live in the area and speak the Maya
language today
a center of food domestication by 3.500 BC
Plants Domesticated:
• Corn
• Beans
• Squash
Political States by 1.200 BC
Animals Domesticated:
• Turkey
• Muscovy Duck
Writing by 600 BC
• Stone
• Wood
Pottery in use by 2.500 BC
In the Maya area:
• Villages around 1,000 BC
• Substantial buildings around
500 BC
• The Maya calendar 3,114 BC
Maya Pottery Cave
Maya Writing Was Quite
Glyphs representations
A House
The Sky
An Ahau (king)
The City of Palenque
A Child
• The ability to
write was an
important step
• Record
• Communicate
and knowledge
down through
But Mesoamerica did not have
Metal tools
Pulleys and other machines
Boats with sails
Animals to carry loads or pull a plow or
• Maya temples build by man power using
stones and wooden tools
• Limitation on movements and warfare
Structure of the society
• A system of kingdoms with Kings and
• The King was also the High Priest
• Claimed that their family relationship with
the Gods provided rain and prosperity
• In return the peasants provided the King
and Noblemen with food and build their
How did they live
• Farming and water collection and storage in
the valleys
• Intensive agriculture with a peasant class
• City like settlement with Kings, noblemen
craftsmen, bureaucrats, and their servants
located on promontories in rolling uplands
• High population density
• ranging from 500 to 700 people/sq mile in
rural areas and 1800 to 2600 people/sq mile
in cities in the centre of the Maya Empire
(compare LA county 2,345 in 2000 )
A Great Maya City
El Mirador
• The back strap
loom used by
Maya women is
used by present
day weavers in
• Everyday wear of
the Maya elite
may have been
thin cotton.
Valley residents pursued livelihoods that supported
the city’s ruling elite. Most farmed corn, beans, and
squash and lived in thatch-roofed dwellings.
• 70% were peasants
• Corn dominant crop –
little protein
• Few domesticated
• Little wild and fish –
only for noblemen
• Humid climate – little
ability to store food
beyond one year
Tradesmen, artists, and nobles built more
elaborate homes
Remains of Agricultural Structures
• Terracing the hill sites - retain soil and moisture
• Irrigation systems:
• Cultivation of the marches, ‘bajos’
• Extensive trade routes between cites and coast
A Cenote
• Pool and cave rivers
• Many created after
meteorite which formed
fractures along a 110
mile wide crater
• Over times these filled
with water
• Mayas used this as a
source of water
©Jeffery Jay Foxx / NYC
The Sacred Cenote
At Tikal, there are 10 reservoirs with 40-million-gallon capacity,
built to capture the runoff from the catchments and the city’s
paved plazas - could supply 10,000 people for 18 months.
©Science Museum of Minnesota
• Excavated depressions on
the valley floor
• Collected run off from the
• Plugged the leaks in the
ground by plastering the
• Also in one place build
dikes around a lake to
increase its capacity
Cultivation of the Marches – ‘bajos’
• Marches 40% of the
landscape, not farmed
• Drained and raised
• Digging canals to drain
waterlogged areas
• Raising the levels of the
fields between canals
• Dump canal muck and
water plants onto the
fields – fertilizer
• Fish and turtles as biproduct
The Classic Maya Collapse
• Environmental impact
Population pressure
Loss of soil and fertility
• Climate change
• Political and cultural impact
Social instability, warfare
Environmental impact
• The Mayas did phase some environmental
problems associated with the nature of their
• However not nearly as fragile as Easter
Island, Greenland or Australia
• The Maya culture was one of the most
advanced societies of its time with cutting
edge technology
• Society collapses are not isolated to small
peripheral societies in very fragile areas
Environmental impact
• Population pressure increased significantly
• To produce more food they started to farm the
• Had to take the trees down. Also needed trees
for firewood, construction and lime production for
reservoirs and buildings
• Hillsides left barren causing soil erosion
• Poorer hill soils covered the fertile valley floor
during the 8th century
• The hills became unproductive
• Might also have contributed to man made
Not tropical – seasonal tropical rainforest
Rainy season May to October but
Also dry season January to April
Rainfall varies from 18 inches in the North
to 100 inches in the South
• Ground water available but water table
drops from North to South
Changing climate
• Relatively wet from 5500 BC to 500 BC
• 475 to 250 BC relatively dry
• Wetter period after 250 BC coincide with the preClassic rise
• Drought from 125-250 AD was associated with preClassic collapses
• Followed by wetter period associated with build up of
classic sites
• Drought around 600 AD – collapse at some sites
• Around 760 AD worst drought in 7000 years peaking
around 800 coinciding with the collapse in the South
• Always multiple warring kingdoms, but
• Population increase caused competition for
land and fighting among the farmers
themselves, and
• Between kingdoms for access to land
• Further decreased the access to land as it
became unsafe as buffer zones
• Kings failed to deliver prosperity therefore
internal uprisings
• Collapse of infrastructure and law of order
resulted in areas being abandoned
Not just one classic collapse
•At least two
previous small
Around AD150 El
Miadore and some
others collapsed
Late 6th to early 7th
Also post-classic
collapses around
The Classic collapse
•Not a complete
Some ‘power cycling’
Some cultures rose and
fell at different times
Some therefore argue no
classic collapse
However 90-99% of the
population disappeared
after AD 800 – especially
in the most densely
populated areas in the
History is repeating itself:
The population of Pelen have skyrocketed from
15.000 in 1950 to more than 300.000 in 1990
Corn, beans and squash thrive, but
only for a few years
Slash and burn
• 1st year 100%
• 2nd year 60% or
• In 3 to 5 years
the land is
basically useless
The forest is again being cut, and the
hillside shows the ravages of erosion on the
denuded land
Two Nations and Two Policies:
In the 70s, Mexico sponsored a
homestead program giving
forestland to settlers to clear.
As the soil gave out the settlers
turned to cattle and to the
forest in Guatemala. Standing
against the tide of destruction
is the Guatemalan
government’s National Council
of Protected Areas.
The Norse Greenland
The Norse History of
Erik the Red explores Greenland.
Leif Eriksson discovers and names land in present
day Canada: Helluland, Markland and Vinland.
Inuit begins to appear near Norse areas, settling
along the coastline.
The trade between Norway and Greenland
gradually declines.
Loss of the Greenland-Knarr, the trade vessel used
for Greenland.
A wedding is held at Hvalsey Church, last written
The Norse population of Greenland disappears.
The Norse when they arrived
• The Norse were farmers more than raiders
and sea fares
• Brought farming tradition and Christian
culture and values
• Pastoralists: some pastures but mainly crops
on the flats, summer pastures higher up.
Animals turned out as soon as the graze was
strong enough to be eaten
• Wealth was measured in: pigs, cows, sheep
and goats, in that order
The Norse Settlement
• The Eastern Settlement
growing season 7 months
• The Western Settlement
growing season 5 months
• Settled deep inside the
fjords away from the
windy and colder, wetter
and more foggy climate at
the coast
• 14 communities/churches
• 250 farms
• 5000 people
The Climate on arrival was:
Foggy, and
A tough life requiring close collaboration to
• Nobody could survive on their own
• In historical perspective the climate was mild!
The impact of climate
The variable climate impacted on
• Pasture growth for hay production to feed
the animals for 8 months in stables
• Long winters increased the need for hay to
feed the animals, resulting in
• High mortality rate
• Small farmers had to borrow from large
farmers, eventually became indebted and had
to sell, big socio economic difference between
small and big farms
• Drift ice blocking the fjords preventing seal
hunt and clogged the sea lanes to Norway
Their houses
Norse Ruins at Brattahild
Their houses
• Stone foundations
• Walls of turf (up to 6 feet thick)
• Needed many barns and stables for
animals and feed
Christianity - Church Ruins
Used resources for
•feed the priests
•manpower to
secure export good
for church luxury
•Contributed to
conservatism which
prevented them
from changing and
adapting to their
new environment
They hunted the wild animals
The Caribou one of the
most important wild
animals hunted by both
the Norse and the Inuit
Caribou give birth on
the coastal plain,
where predators can
be spotted from a
distance. New born
calves are easy
prey for wolves.
A herd of caribou, they go in search of ripe
nutrient-rich tundra
Other wild animals and marine life
available to the Norse
Musk ox
• Smaller mammals such as
hares and foxes
• Birds on land, rivers and the
• Marine mammals (6 spices of
seal – Walrus )
• Whales (hunted by Inuit but
not the Norse)
• Fish in the ocean and rivers
(caught by Inuit but not the
• Shrimps and mussels
A Present Day Farm
Arm of Ericsfjord on
which Eric
the Red had his Farm
•Green areas limited
•All property rights
soon taken - land and
•Society therefore
tightly controlled by a
few chiefs
•Loose federation of
•Feudal conditions
•Prevented any
change that could
threaten the chiefs
The reason for the demise of the Norse
Ruins of Norse house
Initially the Norse prospered
The import of a European
identity and agriculture
allowed them to survive for
500 years and eventually let
to their demise.
Arrived at a time with mild
climate and demand for
walrus ivory and no Inuit.
This changed and the
Norse’s reaction to the
changes sealed their fait.
Consequences of culture and agriculture
Ruins of tiethe barns held goods
collected by the church as tiethe
•Turf cutting for building
and fuel reduced
available arable land
•Cutting down the trees
•Soil erosion
•Shortage of timber
to produce iron,
building, boats etc
•Pigs rooted up fragile
vegetation and soil –
soon abandoned
•Cows far less efficient
than goat and sheep
Consequences of culture and agriculture
• Why the Norse did not eat fish, is still quite un explained,
all other Vikings did then and still do today
• Maintaining their Norwegian values (cultural and religious)
in its traditional form dependent on expensive imports
• Required much man power during most busy time to
undertake dangerous voyages to harvest walrus for ivory
• Man power could have been used for hay production, to
get timber from Labrador, for hunting etc.
• Export goods could have been used to import other
necessary goods such as iron, lumber.
• The hostile relationship with the Inuit, locked them into the
fjords preventing them from seal hunting. The loss of iron
took away their military advantage
Factors outside their control
• Climate change: Cold periods during 1300s
culminated in the early 1400 - the little ice age.
• Reduced hay production and clogged sea lanes
to Norway
• Half the Norway population died from the Black
Dead 1349-50 reducing the ability to trade with
• In 1357 Norway, Sweden and Denmark joined
under the Danish King with little interest in
Norway, further reducing trade with Greenland
• But it was the way that they reacted to change
that sealed their faith
Reasons for the collapses of all 3
• Population pressure increased
• Human activity impacted negatively on
the environment
• Climate change played a role
• Political and religious beliefs prevented
the leaders of the society (kings, chiefs
and priests) from changing their