I’m thinking lately that a farmer can learn more about sustainable farming from history rather than from current science. Agriculture has been taking giant leaps “forward” and archeology giant leaps “backward,” both with intriguing and absorbing results. Both work under a handicap. Archeology studies a silent past and has to worry that it’s getting the story right. Agriculture assumes a future that may not turn out to be true either. The two sciences have markedly different philosophies. Agriculture is interested is making farming a money-profitable business. Archeology is interested in finding out why profitable farming invariably leads to wrecked civilizations.
Archeologists are discovering new information all the time, especially in Central America and in North Africa because in both cases the past is not so silent after all. Written records and datable non-written records are coming to light especially for the Mayan empire on this continent and the Carthaginian Empire and its aftermath in North Africa. For example, researchers are reporting new evidence indicating that the Mayan Empire was maybe a thousand years older than it had been thought to be. The Yucatan Peninsula supported a population of millions more people than historians previously had concluded. Supporting those millions was an extremely advanced maize or corn agriculture, the profit-farming of that time. But whenever the Mayans figured out yet more clever ways to increase corn yields, the population increased and that required yet more yield increases. One example: the people literally built upland fields for corn by carrying rich mud up from swamp land that they could not otherwise drain. Sadly, the Mayans used the wealth from their profit-farming to build gigantic pyramids and fortresses that required a certain kind of cement to erect, and the cement required the burning of vast amounts of wood to produce. What with burning wood and clearing the land for more farming, the forests were destroyed, and erosion followed. The wealth also tempted the people to engage in humans’ favorite sport: war. And the people started having diet problems from too much corn. Does any of this sound familiar?
When Rome destroyed Carthage about 100 BC, Scipio curiously saved something surprising: a set of books. What about? Farming. The author, Mago, had written a detailed record of how to farm successfully in areas of limited rainfall. It is just astounding to read how the farmers of North Africa in those days saved winter rains with all sorts of channeling, pooling, terracing, even giant cisterns, to use in summer. The land, which then was a savannah of grass and scattered trees, not desert, produced magnificently. North Africa provided Roman citizens with practically free grain for centuries. Once again the wealth led to nearly constant wars between tribes and states.
Today, in Tunisia, you can see an amphitheater crumbling to ruins in what is now desert. It looks a lot like the Coliseum in Rome. It could hold 60,000 people. It marks the location of an ancient city, Thysdrus, now mostly buried in the sand. All over North Africa lie buried cities, great temples, marble baths once equipped with flush water toilets, huge warehouses for wheat and olive oil. It has been proven that this desert was not caused by weather change. It rains about as much in North Africa today as then. What happened along with the wars and other extravagances of wealth, was that the uplands on the edge of the Sahara Desert were overgrazed and the soil washed away into the farm lands. The nomads followed their soil north and in the clash between farmers and herders, disruption and chaos led to the abandonment of good dryland farming methods.
I look at the pictures of the amphitheater at Thysdrus and I think of the two sports arenas in Kansas City. Will they someday be crumbling into ruins in a desert too?
Oh, come on you stupid writer. No problem here. We’ll just stack a few more genes on that wonder corn of ours and build a bigger tractor.