Archeology Not Agriculture Teaches Good Farming


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 in 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.


Ralph S. Rathbun May 2, 2011 at 11:41 am

I just finished reading your book “Holy Shit” and it brought to mind an article I had read about two months ago in “Saudi Aramco World” ( The article was about pigeon towers in Isfahan, Iran. The towers date back to the 1200s and their purpose was to attract flocks of wild pigeons in order to collect their dung. The article states one tower could provide fertilizer for 24 acres of land. All in all a very interesting concept.

Excellent, well-written post. I couldn’t agree more! I just wish more people thought like this…

Great writing, Chiara. I liked the piece, Meet the Girls. Royalty is in the eye of the beholder!

Gene! I can’t tell you how much I agree!
Found the bit about Mayans using swamp mud to add fertility for cornfields rather interesting…just the other day my husband was outlandishly stating we could just cart up loads of muck from the dying lake nearby to build up the soil on rather sandy MI acreage…the idea was so crazy to me that I thought it might just work! Now to find that he was thinking like an ancient mayan…amusing to no end.
I wonder what you and your readers would think of my recent post:
“The Royal Wedding and Farming”

Thanks for the post, and also for the belly laugh at the last two lines.

Your recent Progressor Times column about visitng the Ky farm where Carol grew up is a nice companion piece to these thoughts. The unawareness of the past by the subdivision residents who now live on that property is a snapshot of things much larger. We needlessly impoverish ourselves by ignoring the past. On the other hand, it has become increasingly evident to me the last few years that history, religion, drug company validation of new drugs and monsanto share some of the same weaknesses. The human condition tends toward finding what it is looking for, especially when money or prestige are involved. And the oftener you find it, the less apt you are to see something outside the field of expectation. The more invested we become, the less likely we are to acknowledge the uncertainties that are our constant companions.

Please excuse my psycho babble.

Eventhough I hold uncertainty in a much higher regard than I did earlier in life, I am still willing to take a stand when necessary. And if I am looking for information to formulate that stand, I am certain that I will value Logsdon input much higher than Monsanto.

We’ve already outlived the Astrodome, the eighth wonder of the world, or so we thought. When I was younger, one of my adventures took me to Belize, and I had the opportunity to crawl over Chi Chi Nitza (sp). I tried to imagine life in those times and couldn’t. The Mayans had REALLY extreme sports, one was similar to our basketball, where the losers were beheaded. Those were true professional sports, not like our wussy mixed martial arts people. No one has mentioned it yet, so I’ll bring it up: the Mayan calendar ended in 2012. In the immortal words of George Carlin, I’m not sweating those thunder showers anymore! At the bar where I socialize, they sell T-shirts that say “I’m not here for a long time, I’m here for a good time.”

Your comparison of the savannahs of North Africa with the Mayans in the Yucatan and with us here in North America is a good one. Someone once said to predict the future you need only read history books. It must be human nature to think about the next crop of grain or where the next drop of oil will come from before thinking about limiting consumption or conservation of what exists. One of the biggest lies I was told when I was young was that no one was making more land (which is why land holds it’s value). I argue that when they drained the Great Black Swamp here in Ohio, they created more land, or now, when they bulldoze woods and fencerows, they create more land. Malthus was correct; as long as we continue to breed, we will overpopulate, then we’ll fight over the scraps. Wash, rinse, repeat. As Sonny and Cher sang: “The beat goes on”.

So Saturday, I’m going to the Tiro Testicle Festival, and indulge in some deep fried nards. 2012 is just around the corner. I want to have a funny T-shirt to go out with.

Gene–remember your lonely hickory post, when you lamented the lack of future gatherers? Sounds like there will be a fair number of us after all! Isn’t it grand?

Gene: great post on a topic very close to my heart. I look around at today’s world and it seems like no matter what topic I choose, crisis looms. Agriculture, energy, politics, finances, liberty…. Everything that can be identified as a part of normal modern culture looks like it’s rapidly converging on critical failure.

I actually see this is a hopeful thing though, perhaps paradoxically. The reason is that we already know what to do about it, and we have time to get a lot of it done. All we have to do is get down to business with sustainable/regenerative agriculture and stop begging a broken system to fix itself. We can solve this problem from the bottom up, not by rescuing the extraction paradigm, but by building a new paradigm starting with ourselves, our friends, and our neighbors. The problems of the extraction-based system are getting to be obvious enough that many people are receptive to the idea of changing the ways they do things if they can just see how to get started.

Your books were a big part of a dramatic life change for me — I bought a 20 acre farm and am turning it into a farm of the “future past”. I’m also starting a project group out here with the goal of bringing sustainable, permanent agriculture to the back yards and gardens of the whole town. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m very encouraged at the response so far. People seem to be ready for this.

The point of all that is that a crisis always causes change. In this case, that change could be anything from a new dark age to the emergence of a new society that fixes instead of destroys. We ordinary folk have the real power to influence that change by doing what you’re doing with your writing, what I’m doing with my farm, and what I’m sure most of your readers are doing as well — changing our own lives and telling people about it. Find others who are doing the same things and help each other out. Buy only products that are made in a way that works for the future. Politicians can’t fix politics, Wall Street can’t fix finances, and Monsanto can’t fix agriculture. None of them can see outside of the fundamentals of their systems to know what really needs changing. We can.

the history of farming is a passionate subject..I totally agree it has more to teach as about nitty gritty, truly independent farming than what the french call farming with crutches of all kinds that farming has become.
my particular thing is genetic resources, which I think many don’t realize the significance of. since it’s so little, seed will be cheap to ship well into the future, but when the mothership runs aground in the next generation or so, doing it yourself will involve husbanding genetic resources in communities, & if they are not there or are of poor quality (hybrids and the industry’s bred pure lines) life may be pretty uninteresting gustatorily, perhaps nutritionally too, for a time to come. it took farmers thousands of years to create the varieties we have now, & they are globally dwindling rapidly on the one hand & shifting to corporate ownership all around the world, on the other. hobbiests & homesteaders should realize the shortsightedness in sending out for seeds every year & organize their own hubs for seed swapping, that is, establish the foundation of a healthy genetic resources pool that is in the hands of the users themselves. I deeply appreciate the work of the profit & non profit custodians of our heirloom varieties–but the knowledge of variety conservation & improvement should not remain with such a limited number of people, but spread around with the seed itself. archeological farming was not done from seed catalogs, however enlightened the catalog people might be. it was done by the farmers themselves.

Can’t help but echo the comments above Gene. Other than living the ‘good life’ on my farm my other great loves are geology and archaeology and you have combined them perfectly well in your blog. Makes me think that at last maybe I am not crazy after all!

The other interesting trend I have noticed is right out of the blue people who would never in a million years contemplate getting their hands dirty on a farm are quietly asking about how do you live in this way. A case in point is my son (23) and daughter (25), after many years of kinda thinking their parents were quite nuts growing their own food, using renewable energy and making do with what is available are now returning to the roost. My son (a commercial pilot) has come back with his family to live on the farm with us and my daughter (manager of a large firm) has moved to another farm not too far away with her partner and son and they are keenly absorbing what we have to show them. Interesting thing is that they did this on their own with no prompting from anyone – I am seeing this quite a lot now. Maybe there is something in the air after all that is getting people twitchy; a bit like animals running away before an earthquake or tsunami. Watch this space!

Brilliant post, as usual. Proves the benefits of fresh air, fresh food, and fresh thinking. I’m sending this on.

Paula, nothing is going to be “in time.” We’re all just doing what we can do, as fast as we reasonably can!

“Gail the Actuary” gives us no more than a few years before oil — at least in Amerika — goes away.

Now that isn’t what geologists or even “peak oilers” will tell you, but Gail says the increasing domestic needs of importers combined with a glut of dollars will mean that Amerika will be “priced out” of the oil market very soon. Today’s oil exporters are going to cut exports to save themselves, rather than take increasingly worthless US Dollars for it.

I just hope that Canada can get out of NAFTA so Amerika doesn’t plunder our resources, too. Under NAFTA, Canada must sell a certain amount of oil to Amerika, even if Canada doesn’t have enough for her own citizens. Could be like the Irish potato famine, when Irish farmers were starving while they were exporting grain to England.

Yes, Beth, that is exactly right. Solve the problem by printing more money. My grandfather used to tell me my favorite story which his grandfather had told him. When Germany was printing all that money, things got so bad that the wealthy were taking their gold and silver and gems out to the country and trading them for the peasants’ potatoes. It was a good time to be a peasant and I am glad that I am one of them. Gene

A great post, and a great comment from Beth, too.

I am in the process of teaching myself how to grow all the food that we’ll need when the ‘ship hits the sand’, as my elderly neighbor likes to put it. So far, I think I’ll just make us starve a lot slower. And just last night, my husband sent out RFQs for a new metal roof. We want the metal roof so that we can collect rainwater off it. Our current asphalt-based roof is still in good shape, and Steve hadn’t wanted to replace it any sooner than it needed to be, but now we’re both very concerned that the dollar is going to fail somewhere in the near future and he figures we’d better get that roof replaced with what we want before we can’t afford to do it. New insulation and very much needed new gutters are also in the plan. Sooner than later is better in this scenario.

Between the Ogallala Aquifer showing signs of drying up altogether, questionable farming practices, global warming (which may or may not be caused by mankind, but we can’t deny that the permafrost and polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate), and the fiscal and monetary policies our fearless leaders have pursued, I think we are in for a very bad time indeed.

How much better we’d be able to deal with this very scary future that is shaping up if we had learned from history, because it does look very much like we are doomed to repeat it.

I just hope my efforts are in time.

Good work, Gene! This gets filed right between Jared Diamond and Joseph Tainter.

Oh, Gene, have you hit the nail on the head this time! Of all my “book larning”, once I got past the basics of the 3Rs, history is the one I’ve gotten the most use out of. That says something, considering that I’m educated to the Masters level; spent over 40 years in health care; will read anything that’s standing still or even moving slowly; that my interests are extremely wide-ranging and my tastes eclectic. Did you know, for example, that Victory gardens in WW2 produced, by the end of the war, the same amount of fruits and vegetables as the entire system of commercial agriculture? Or that our government is currently following a pattern similar to that of Germany’s Weimar republic, which handled its financial problems by printing money (that’s what QE1 and 2 were, folks) and ultimately debased the currency to the point that it took a wheelbarrow of marks to buy a head of cabbage? Assuming you could find a head of cabbage. Those old books and archeological information are going to be very necessary in the near future, because oil–not just cheap oil on which our civilization is currently built–but all oil is going to become less and less available. Since I live in the dry west and expect it to get drier, I’m studying the systems of Carthage as well as the systems of the Anasazi and the Hopi, because I expect those systems to be useful quite soon. Too many people have not studied history, and sadly, I fear they are doomed to repeat it. Great post, Gene–thanks!

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