The Incas: Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca Trail


Inca Agriculture: Moray, Cuzco

Inca Agriculture: Moray Art

The Potato, Inca's Food
Potato Inca's Food
As Other Staples Soar, Potatoes Break New Ground.

Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911, wrote:

To the Incas the art of agriculture was of supreme interest. They carried it to a remarkable extreme, attaching more importance to it than we do to-day. They not only developed many different plants for food and medicinal purposes, but they understood thoroughly the cultivation of the soil, the art of proper drainage, correct methods of irrigation, and soil conservation by means of terraces constructed at great expense. Most of the agricultural fields in the Peruvian Andes are not natural. The soil has been assembled, put in place artificially, and still remains fertile after centuries of use.

The Incas learned the importance of fertilizers to keep the soil rich and fruitful. They had discovered the value of the guano found on the bird-islands that lie off the coast of Peru, setting aside various of these islands for the benefit of different provinces. No one was allowed to visit the islands during the breeding season. Although hundreds of thousands of fish-eating birds inhabit the islands, the Incas punished by death anyone killing a single guano-producing bird.

They depended on terrace agriculture. It is seen in its most conspicuous form on steep slopes. Terraces are found in many other countries, notably in east Asia and the Philippines, but it is very doubtful whether any equal those constructed by the Incas. In Peru the artificial reconstruction of the surface soil was not limited to slopes, but was also undertaken in large areas of reclaimed land in valley bottoms. They even narrowed and straightened the courses of the rivers, filled in the land behind strong walls and topped off the work with a surface layer of fine soil.

The system of terrace agriculture which they developed consists roughly of three parts, the retaining wall and two distinct layers of earth that fill the space behind the wall. The underlying stratum, an artificial sub-soil, is composed of coarse stones and clay to a thickness that depends upon the height of the retaining wall. This stratum was covered by a layer of rich soil two or three feet deep.

Fortunately for the Incas the soils in the terraced districts are tenacious and not readily eroded. A few sods or a small ridge of earth will hold in check a stream of water, thus greatly facilitating the irrigation of the terraces. In places, large stones deeply grooved lengthwise served as spouts to carry the water out from a terrace wall thus avoiding the danger of erosion or undermining.

Mr. O. F. Cook, the distinguished authority on tropical agriculture who was the botanist on one of my Peruvian expeditions, tells me that the Incas and their predecessors domesticated more kinds of food and medicinal plants than any other people in the world.

They found a small plant growing in the high Andes, with a tuberous root about the size of a small pea. It proved to be edible and from it, in the course of the centuries, they finally developed a dozen varieties of what we call the "Irish" or white potato, suitable for cultivation at elevations varying from sea level to fourteen thousand feet above it. After the Spanish Conquest of Peru, it took Europeans nearly three centuries to appreciate the staple food of the Incas. In fact, had it nit been for famines in France and Ireland it is hard to say when the Peruvian potato would have been accepted as part of their daily ration.

The skill and ingenuity of the Inca agriculturists was shown not only in the breeding and raising of many kinds of potatoes, but also in the very many varieties of maize or Indian corn, suitable for cultivation at varying elevations, which they developed. No one knows exactly the plant from which maize was originally derived. There is no doubt, however, that the Incas had more varieties of maize, a whole series that were unlike any that are known from Central America or Mexico, and had gone to a far greater extreme in developing them than did the Mayas.

An Inca food plant almost unknown to Europeans is canihua, a kind of pig weed. It is harvested in April, the stalks are dried and placed on a large blanket laid on the ground as a threshing floor. The blanket serves to prevent the small greyish seeds from escaping when the flail is applied.

Another unfamiliar food plant, also a species of pig weed, is called quinoa. Growing readily on the slopes of the high Andes at an elevation as great as most of our Rocky Mountains it manages to attain a height of three or four feet and produces abundant crops. The seeds are cooked like a cereal and are very palatable.

At lower elevations in the Andes the Incas developed another series of root crops, most of which are still unfamiliar to us, but one, the sweet potato, has achieved world-wide popularity.

In addition to discovering and developing useful food plants, the Incas also were the first to learn the advantages of certain medicinal herbs, particularly quinine, long known as a specific in the cure of malaria. They also discovered the specific effects of cocaine, which is extracted from coca leaves, but only allowed it to be used by those engaged in such strenuous activities as the marathons of their post runners. Judging by the "medicines" sold by the Indian "druggists" who display their wares in the market places of the mountain towns, the ancient remedies included such minerals as sulphur, such vegetables as the seeds, roots, and dried leaves of tropical jungle plants, and such animals as star-fish!


‘Lost City of the Incas, The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders’ by Hiram Bingham
The American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu
The inspiration for Indiana Jones?