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Sustaining Irrigation Agriculture for the Long-Term: Lessons on Maintaining Soil Quality from Ancient Agricultural Fields in the Phoenix Basin and on the North Coast of Peru

Author(s): Colleen Strawhacker

Year: 2013

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Irrigation agriculture has been heralded as the solution to feeding the world’s growing population. To this end, irrigation agriculture is both extensifying and intensifying in arid regions across the world in an effort to create highly productive agricultural systems. Over one third of modern irrigated fields, however, show signs of serious soil degradation, including salinization and waterlogging, which threaten the productivity of these fields and the world’s food supply. Surprisingly, little ecological data on agricultural soils have been collected to understand and address these problems. How, then, can expanding and intensifying modern irrigation systems remain agriculturally productive for the long-term?

Archaeological case studies can provide critical insight into how irrigated agricultural systems may be sustainable for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Irrigation systems in Mesopotamia, for example, have been cited consistently as a cautionary tale of the relationship between mismanaged irrigation systems and the collapse of civilizations, but little data expressly link how and why irrigation failed in the past. This dissertation presents much needed ecological data from two different regions of the world – the Phoenix Basin in southern Arizona and the Pampa de Chaparrí on the north coast of Peru – to explore how agricultural soils were affected by long-term irrigation in a variety of social and economic contexts, including the longevity and intensification of irrigation agriculture.

Data from soils in prehispanic and historic agricultural fields indicate that despite long-lived and intensive irrigation farming, farmers in both regions created strategies to sustain large populations with irrigation agriculture for hundreds of years. In the Phoenix Basin, Hohokam and O’odham farmers relied on sedimentation from irrigation water to add necessary fine sediments and nutrients to otherwise poor desert soils. Similarly, on the Pampa, farmers relied on sedimentation in localized contexts, but also constructed fields with ridges and furrows to draw detrimental salts away from planting surfaces in the furrows on onto the ridges. These case studies are then compared to failing modern and ancient irrigated systems across the world to understand how the centralization of management may affect the long-term sustainability of irrigation agriculture.

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Cite this Record

Sustaining Irrigation Agriculture for the Long-Term: Lessons on Maintaining Soil Quality from Ancient Agricultural Fields in the Phoenix Basin and on the North Coast of Peru. Colleen Strawhacker. Doctoral Dissertation. Arizona State University (ASU), School of Human Evolution and Social Change. 2013 ( tDAR id: 391894) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8M046BJ


Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 750 to 1950 (Time Period of Fields)

Individual & Institutional Roles

Contact(s): Colleen Strawhacker

File Information

  Name Size Creation Date Date Uploaded Access
Strawhacker_Final.pdf 10.23mb Aug 5, 2013 Jan 21, 2014 3:27:42 PM Public
Colleen Strawhacker's Dissertation
Arizona State University The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Science Foundation National Endowment for the Humanities Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Institute of America