A new paper from the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima which examines ancient Peruvian pollen records has finally uncovered the reason behind the sudden and mysterious disappearance of the once-bustling Nazca civilization in 500 AD.

 

Agribusiness.

 

When you see the Mars-like terrain inscribed with the mysterious kilometer long drawings that Nazca is so famous far, it’s hard to imagine that this place was once a lush, Eden-like setting whose flora and fauna supported the expansion of the Nazca settlement.

The anchor species of the entire region was the slow-growing huarango tree, a relative of mesquite, which could live for centuries sending tap roots down 180 feet to access deep water resources. The trees fixed nitrogen out of the air, producing a nutritious seed that was a staple of the Nazcan people, and millineae of deposited leaves created the perfect conditions for a nascent agricultural society.

According to Alex J. Chepstow-Lusty, co-author of the paper, Nazca’s soil fertility was like a siren call, beckoning the society towards a cliff-like future quite similar to our own -- a society that is dominated by “agribusiness” and the  widespread deforestation which makes it possible.

The pollen record shows a sequence that will sound familiar. Land was first cleared for large cotton crops, then corn, then protein-rich beans. Soon the quantity of these monoculture crops overtook, then replaced the trees, and by 500 AD the entire basin was entirely deforested.

Along came a huge El Nino flood, and without any soil stability in place, the entire society was quite literally whipped off the face of the earth.

Why is a technology blogger writing about ancient agricultural practices, you may wonder.

The tree (and by tree I don’t mean little sticks used to make paper, I mean old-growth) is by far one of the best “cleantech” solutions we have going to ensuring sustained life on this planet and, according to the McKinsey Institute, one of the cheapest.

How can we compete with a technology that  would you build a transportable solar power plant that builds soil fertility,  sequesters carbon dioxide, provides food , shelter and fuel all the while capturing, cleaning and securing strategic water resources? You wouldn’t.

 

And as I’ve blogged before, the protection of native forests AND the regulation of agribusiness (an industry which BTW has been a huge obstacle in creating a clean energy policy here in the U.S.) has to be a key component in the climate talks or else Copenhagen may be looked back upon as a failure.

While the parade of cleantech industries should I agree have a rightfully prominent place in the new post-COP15 low carbon economy, we shouldn’t forget about the humble tree, for without it none of us would even be breathing right now.

Photo: The Independent

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