Sowing in the sand
Without a doubt, the most important work on the Peruvian coast that ancient humans have passed down to us is the wise utilization of hydrologic resources and the soil. This technology - the product of the systematization of observing natural phenomena through the passage of thousands of years - enabled the first inhabitants of these lands to prevail over their environment and to cultivate huge tracts of land, reclaiming areas from the desert and exploiting the capacity of the narrow coastal valleys to their maximum. Today, due to modern high tech irrigation systems, the new farmers of the desert are audaciously imitating their forefathers and have recovered a large part of their lands that were believed to be useless for farming, which is generating a new agricultural export boom in the country.
But, let us start this story from the beginning. Even if the first activity of humans on the coast was fishing, it was not until the arrival of agriculture, around 5,000 B.C., that these began to form themselves into villages and to lay the foundations of civilization. Many scientists agree that it was the people coming from the mountains who started the domestication of the first plants. This fact is strengthened by the proven specialization of the fishing peoples, who had restricted themselves to living in the coves along the coastline and thus left the valleys free of settlements. The researcher, Maria Rostworowski, states in her paper on the use of natural resources during the XVI and XVII centuries that “a constant in all the documents about the coast during the XVI and XVII centuries is the repetition of fishing communities being separate from the farming communities;” as well, she produces several references on how these fishermen and farmers traded their goods.
A first phase of this period, called Pre-ceramic, is the experimentation with domestication, accomplished from the collection of selected fruits to guarantee the reproduction of certain plants. It was the beginning of the first cultivation of lima beans, beans, and pumpkins. The second agricultural phase consisted of mastering the techniques of cultivation, taking place between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C. Here is when corn and cotton appeared, two goods that would have far reaching repercussions on the pre-Hispanic societies. This period culminated with the establishment of powerful oracles, like Chavin in northern Peru.
Agricultural consolidation brought with it the development of a new social class: priests and seers who were capable of predicting changes in the weather and of controlling the harvests through direct contact with the gods. This elite class had at their disposal a huge labor force and dedicated themselves to building massive engineering works - like the extensive canals that connected the valleys, reservoirs, and aqueducts - that enabled the agricultural frontier to be expanded.
Towards the year 100 A.D. and for more than five centuries, the Mochica people ruled the arid regions of the north coast and expanded their territory as far south as Piura and northern Lima, thanks to their intensive working of the land for agricultural purposes. Rafael Larco Hoyle, author of the most important study about this nation, describes three farming systems: in straight furrows, on terraces, and in the shape of a snail. These last two, seen mainly in Morrope and in the pampas of San Jose Alto, made the efficient use of water possible without it flowing off the slope. For the job of plowing, they used copper tools shaped like spatulas and shovels that featured a carved wood handle, of which a few examples are preserved. By using the vestiges of the irrigation canals and the crop fields, Larco Hoyle calculated that the Mochica maintained a little more than 33,000 hectares of cultivated land in the eight valleys where they flourished. In regards to the irrigation techniques, the highlight is a predecessor of direct drip irrigation that is used on most of the lands dedicated to the agricultural industry. We are talking about the use of hollowed out pumpkins or v filled with water with a hole punched in the bottom and into which a corncob was inserted to allow the water to flow out in intervals. These containers were placed above the plants on wooden stakes to keep the ground wet and to enable the uniform germination of the plants.