Central Asia Regional Bed Varieties: by Cameron Lee

Take an Agricultural Tour of the World with Gateway Greening!  For the next few weeks, we’ll be posting a new blog post each Monday highlighting a regional bed from our Demonstration Garden. While these posts will not include growing instructions, they will be history lessons on the agricultural practices of regions around the world.

One of our regional raised beds in the Demonstration Garden this year is growing plants that were originally domesticated in Central Asia. While many people often overlook this region, some of the world’s most common foods are native to the area.  Even something that many consider being uniquely American, such as apple pie, can trace its roots back to Central Asia. The region is unique in that it served as a confluence of culture between Europe and Africa to East Asia and India. Perhaps best known for Marco Polo’s journey on the Silk Road, the geographical location of Central Asia allowed the exchange of ideas, commodities, and luxury goods to travel between Europe and Asia. Stretching from the Caspian Sea in the West to China in the east, from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the North, this region has a fascinating history where great empires rose and fell. This region includes the modern-day countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. Home to a wide array of varied geography, like the high passes and mountains of the Tian Shan, the vast deserts of Kyzyl Kum and the Taklamakan, and especially the seemingly unending treeless, grassy steppes.

Zhongar-Alatau national park in eastern Kazahstan, which contains stands of the wild ancestors of several domesticated fruit species.  The most famous of which are the stands of the wild ancestors of the domesticated apple. Some can be seen at the bottom and right corner of this picture.

This vast region contains picturesque landscapes that played a significant role in shaping human history. Countless trading caravans, herders, soldiers, and artisans all traveled along a series of trade routes that later came to be collectively known as the Silk Road. The resulting economic traffic through the region gave rise to the legendary Silk Road cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Loulan, and Samarkand. It is important to note that the “Silk Road” was not a road by modern standards, nor was silk the only commodity. It was a cultural and economic phenomenon of exchange and interaction that helped shape the world as we see today. The prehistoric Central Asians connected the corners of the ancient world and helped to spread innovations across the continent. While silk was by far the most valuable luxury commodity traded, goods like precious gemstones and minerals, luxury goods, spices, domesticated crops and animals, ideas, and technology were all exchanged throughout the ancient world. The dispersal of crops and animals remained unmatched until the Colonial era. Crops like wheat and millet traveled along the Silk Road, with millet becoming the summer crop of the Persian Empire and adopted by the common people of Rome and wheat to Han China, grown during the winter season, was transformed to make noodles and dumpling skins. The movement of domesticates saw a change in culinary traditions, gave rise to crop rotation cycles, as well as globalizing regional cuisines. 

While Central Asia is seemingly a vast, desolate expanse today, parts of it were considered to be gardens of Eden for millennia. Until the first millennium BC, much of southern Central Asia was a lush expanse of short shrubby forests, which included wild cultivars of pistachio, almond, cherry, and English walnut trees. The mountainous regions were once covered by sea buckthorn, Russian olives, wild apples, hawthorn, mountain ash, and a wide variety of nut-bearing trees. While much of these forests are gone today, there are still small, vibrant pockets of agricultural land that continues to produce fruits including grapes, pomegranates, and sweet melons. The Memoirs of Babur or Bāburnāma, compiled between 1483 and 1530, chronicles the travels of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur, including his observation: 

“Grapes, melons, apples, and pomegranates, all fruits, indeed, are good in Samarkand; two are famous, its apple and its grape. Its winter is mightily cold; snow falls but not so much as in Kabul (Afghanistan); in the heat, its climate is good but not so good as Kabul’s.”

During Bābur’s time, Samarkand was the capital city of the empire of Timur. Set by a fertile oasis watered by the Zarafshan river, the city was the center of education and commerce. In the heart of the city, Timur and his successors constructed the Rēgistan, an Islamic university that rivaled the grandness of European palaces. 

Although many would influence Central Asia, the introduction of Islam had the most significant impact on the region. In 751 CE, the Abbasid Caliphate along with their ally the Tibetan Empire fought against the Chinese Tang Dynasty in order to control the Syr Darya region. Fought at the Talas River, the battle resulted in the Islamization of Central Asia. The Islamization of Central Asia has had profound impacts on the region, with the adoption or blending of the Islamic religion into native cultures. During this time the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Urgench prospered and were centers of Islamic learning, culture, and art in Central Asia. Though the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century would slow the process, Islam remains the dominant religion in the region today. 

The adoption of Islamic architecture also led to the construction of ornate Persianate gardens and orchards, with the crops irrigated using a complex system of conduits. Perhaps the most significant achievements of the Qarakhanid period (840-1212 CE), was the development of elaborate irrigation systems and expanding cultivated farming land into the deserts, even digging a one-hundred kilometer (sixty-two mile) canal connecting the Taraz region of southern Kazakhstan to the Ferghana lowlands in Uzbekistan. The agricultural practices of the region following the Mongolian conquests were preserved in Persian agricultural manuals, such as the Irshad al-Zira’a (guide to agriculture) composed in 1515 in Herat, Afghanistan by Qasim B. Yusuf Abu Nasri Harawi. The book discusses irrigated gardens and elaborate pavilions, going in-depth about the cultivation of wheat, barley, millet, rice, lentils, and chickpeas; viticulture; garden crops, including cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, radishes, onions, garlic, beets, and eggplant; herbs and aromatic plants; fruits and nuts including, melons, pomegranates, quinces, pears, apples, apricots, plums, cherries, figs, mulberries, and pistachios. The prominence of rice is also attributed to the period. These gardens and orchards were later expanded upon, under the stewardship of the tenth-century Qarakhanid ruler Ibrahim ibn Nasr. Large-scale game and hunting preserves were created. The gardens and orchards were well-maintained, in fact, Suzani Samarkandi, the only poet of the Qarakhanid court whose writing survives today, stated that Samarkand was “a paradise on Earth.” 

Central Asia was a critical region in shaping world history. The cultural effects from the region still affects us today. The Silk Road revolutionized agricultural practices, changed culinary traditions, and saw the spread of innovation across the ancient and medieval world. Highly lucrative, any empire that held control over parts of the Silk Road often experienced economic advantages. One of the largest empires in history, the Roman Empire even benefitted from the Silk Road. By enacting tariffs and taxing commodities arriving from the east, Rome was able to experience unprecedented economic growth. According to Pliny the Elder, advisor to Emperor Vespasian, estimated that more than 100 million sesterces of bullion left the empire as a consequence of the international commerce. Giving Rome the economic power to fund their wars and become an ancient superpower.

Beckwith, Christopher I. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2011.

Choi, Charles Q. “Silk Road Travelers’ Ancient Knowledge May Have Irrigated Desert.” LiveScience. January 12, 2018. Accessed August 23, 2019. https://www.livescience.com/61408-silk-road-helped-irrigate-desert.html.

McLaughlin, Raoul. The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy & the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia & Han China. Pen and Sword, 2016.

Spengler, Robert N. Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.

Stevens, Chris J., Charlene Murphy, Rebecca Roberts, Leilani Lucas, Fabio Silva, and Dorian Q. Fuller. “Between China and South Asia: A Middle Asian Corridor of Crop Dispersal and Agricultural Innovation in the Bronze Age – Chris J Stevens, Charlene Murphy, Rebecca Roberts, Leilani Lucas, Fabio Silva, Dorian Q Fuller, 2016.” SAGE Journals. June 1, 2016. Accessed August 23, 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0959683616650268.

Mesoamerican Regional Bed: by Cameron Lee

Take an Agricultural Tour of the World with Gateway Greening!  For the next few weeks, we’ll be posting a new blog post each Monday highlighting a regional bed from our Demonstration Garden. While these posts will not include growing instructions, they will be history lessons on the agricultural practices of regions around the world.

Similarly to the Andes Mountains in South America, Mesoamerica developed their form of intensive agriculture throughout the Valley of Mexico. Built by the Aztecs, chinampas are a form of intensive agriculture that was carried out on a large scale in and around Lake Texcoco. Aztec engineers artificially constructed small rectangular shaped areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lakebeds. These floating lakebeds were referred to as “floating gardens” by the Spanish conquistadors, primarily centered around the lakes Xochimilco and Chalco. Near the natural springs that flow alongside the south shore of the lakes. The Aztecs cultivated maize, beans, squash, amaranth, tomatoes, chilies, and a diverse array of flowers, which were prevalent in Mesoamerican festivals and feasts. The fields surrounding the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan were estimated to have provided enough food to feed at least one-half to two-thirds of the populace of the city. 

Map showing Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs and the lakes of the Mexico Valley showing the locations of the Chinampas.

The majority of farming in the forested areas of Mesoamerica was conducted using slash and burn agriculture. By using this particular method, the chinampas were fertilized by cutting and burning the vegetation to clear ground. Fernando de Oviedo’s description of “slash and burn farming” stated, “The Indians first cut down the cane and trees where they wish to plant it… After the trees and cane have been felled and the field grubbed, the land is burned over, and the ashes are left as dressing for the soil, and this is much better than if the land were fertilized.” (Fernandez de Oviedo 1969 [1535]: 13-14). The initial preparation of agricultural plots was followed by the construction of small earthen mounds or platforms, that measured one foot high and three to four feet in diameter in some areas. Mounds on which they grew their crops on. Their fields or “conucos” consisted of a series of small circular earthen mounds, on which a variety of plants were grown. This method of farming would spread into what is now the United States. Roughly two centuries later, English and French explorers encountered the Iroquois who practiced a similar approach, cultivating the “Three Sisters,” maize, beans, and squash which grew on similarly constructed large earthen mounds.

The Maya would also develop raised field systems near the Candelaria River. At first, the Spanish Conquistadors did not recognize the significance of the fields. However, it would be noticed by the chronicler Francisco Lopez de Gomara who informed General Cortes in 1519 that the Mayan agricultural fields; “both worked and in fallow…” [are] “difficult to cross… [that those on foot could], “walk on a straight line, crossing ditches at each step.” On the Gulf Coast, the Cempoalans constructed a series of aqueducts that flowed from the river into storage tanks or cisterns. From these storage facilities, water was then channeled to other cisterns through the aqueducts until finally emptying into the canals.

Some of the few remaining chinampas

While maize played a significant role in these pre-Columbian societies, cacao and vanilla beans were also important, serving as an important commercial crop during the pre and post-contact times. Cacao and vanilla beans served as forms of currency, while other major commercial crops like beans, manioc, and squash were commonly featured in their diets. 

Corn, beans, and squash as grown in a traditional Mesoamerican agricultural system

The arrival of the Europeans also brought with them their dietary categories, either intentionally or subconsciously, imposed their food and cuisines to the New World. While crops like maize were likened to wheat, many of the traditional Mesoamerican foods and processes were alien and at times revolting to European tastes. Particularly the insect-based or rotten foods such as, “large fat spiders, white worms that breed in rotten wood, and other decayed objects: did not resonate with established European tastes, despite the fact that rotten foods such as aged cheese, pickled fruits, and aged smoked meat were essential components of Western diets. When Columbus first encountered the Taino tribes he established relatively friendly terms; the “other decayed objects” included a specialty-zamia bread, which was manufactured from a species of cycad, made by grating the zamia root and then shaping the grated pulp into balls. After leaving them in the sun for two or three days to ferment, they turned black in color and wormy. When ripe, the zamia balls were then flattened into cakes and then baked over a fire on a griddle. The Tainos informed the Spaniard if it is eaten before it was black of not full of worms, then the eater would die. Zamia pulp unless fermented or thoroughly washed may be highly toxic. The societies of Mesoamerica had and still has, a long tradition of eating plump insects and algae that were plentiful in their environment. The maguey worm or the chinicuiles was a delicacy much favored by the Aztec court and still is a delicacy today. One dish that was more tolerable to the Spaniards was a bread made from the toxic yuca plant. Manioc roots were peeled and grated, and the juices were squeezed out under heavy pressure. When boiled, it was used to make a harmless cassareep sauce, which then can be transformed into tapioca. The Spaniards enthusiastically adopted cassava; in some accounts even claiming it as being superior to wheaten bread. 

Crops like maize had significant religious importance to the pre-Columbian societies, noting that shamans still use kernels to interpret omens. Its ancient divinity is evident by its iconographic and hieroglyphic association with primary deities and origin myths. According to iconographic interpretations on Classic Maya stelae and architecture suggested that the maize god was the “first father” and the Quiche Maya term Qanan or maize meant “Our Mother.” In the Mayan creation story known as Popol Vuh, it states that the gods used maize from the Mountain of Sustenance at Paxil Cayola as the main ingredient for the design of humankind. The mountain was filled with, pataxte (similar to cacao), cacao, zapotes (soft edible fruit), annonas (from the sugar apple family), jocotes (plum-like fruit), honey, and most importantly, yellow and white ears of maize. According to the creation story, Xmukane ground white and yellow kernels of maize that was provided by the Mountain of Sustenance. Modern Maya believes that eating maize offers a means of incorporating the divine or their ancestral flesh into their bodies allowing access to their ancestral language and esoteric knowledge regarding the spiritual realm. 

“Mesoamerica.” MesoAmerica. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://laulima.hawaii.edu/access/content/user/millerg/ANTH_151/Anth151Unit3/MesoAmerica.html.

“Pre-Columbian Civilization.” Pre-Columbian Civilization. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Pre-Columbian_Civilization.

Staller, John, and Michael Carrasco. Pre-Columbian Foodways Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York, NY: Springer New York, 2010.

Andes/South American Regional Bed Varieties: by Cameron Lee

Take an Agricultural Tour of the World with Gateway Greening!  For the next few weeks, we’ll be posting a new blog post each Monday highlighting a regional bed from our Demonstration Garden. While these posts will not include growing instructions, they will be history lessons on the agricultural practices of regions around the world.

Some of the plants growing in the demonstration garden this year are native to the Andes and South America which have been cultivated by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. These indigenous peoples included the Chibchas, Quechuas, Tairona, and Aymara peoples. Each had their lasting legacy that is still seen today. Recent archaeological finds and research shows that the pre-European contact civilizations in South America were a lot more advanced Europeans believed them to be. Each of these pre-contact civilizations was independently established and developed permanent or urban settlements, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture and followed complex societal hierarchies. Many of whom collapsed by the time of the arrival of the first permanent European colonists who reached the Americas. When the European explorers arrived in the New World, both native and European accounts state that the “New World” civilizations possessed many impressive feats. Such as having the most populous city in the world as well as modern theories of astronomy and mathematics. 

The history of the native peoples in South America begins with an Asiatic migration over the Bering Land Bridge, now known as the Bering Strait. Throughout millennia, people spread across all over the continent. These early peoples would form the first complex civilizations on the continent– the earliest being estimated to emerge around 5,000 BCE. The first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers and lived in local hegemonies throughout the Americas. In South America in particular, people spread over parts of modern-day Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

The terraces of the Andes mountains that still stand today that some are reviving the use of due to their efficiency and adaptability

The first evidence of agricultural practices in South America dates back to 5600 BCE, from the Norte Chico civilization. Considered the first complex society established in South America, they cultivated maize, potatoes, beans, avocados, among other native plants. To put this into context, the Norte Chico emerged around the same time the pyramids of Ancient Egypt were being built and predated the Mesoamerican Olmec by nearly two thousand years. They later significantly improved their agricultural practices with the construction of massive stone terraces in the high mountains of the Andes without beasts of burden or metal tools. The stone terraces not only extended the cultivated area, but also protected microclimates, allowing specific varieties to flourish. Archaeologists even suggest that an “amphitheater” found in the Cuzco region was an experimented field where the concentric terraces reproduced tiny variations in the upland environment. The Norte Chico can serve as a reminder that no one civilization can claim to have led the whole world and the human race in developing technology, culture, society, political organization, or religious belief.

These agricultural technologies and practices would be continued and expanded upon by the Incan Empire. They developed resilient breeds of crops that can thrive in harsh climates. They built cisterns and irrigation canals that lined mountains — further building more terraces into the hillsides, becoming progressively steeper. At the height of the Incan empire in the fifteenth century, the vast system of terraces, cisterns, and irrigation canals covered an area of an estimated one million hectares (just under four thousand square miles!) throughout Peru and was able to feed one of the most populous empires in the world of the time. However, these practices and traditions was lost to history when the Spanish Conquistadors invaded. The local populations were destroyed by war and disease; some researchers estimate as many as half of the total population perished following Spanish conquest. Though the methods may have been lost, remnants of the terraces remain. Inspired by recent archaeological research, people living in the Andes have made an effort to revive traditional crops and methods of planting. The reasons being that Incan agricultural techniques were extremely productive and more efficient in terms of water use than our current systems. Modern farmers have been looking at Incan ways that can offer simple, relatively easy solutions to help protect their communities, especially as climate change makes it more challenging to cultivate certain varieties of crops. 

The “amphitheater” that some believe was an experimental field designed to create many different microclimates for crops

The archaeologist Ann Kendall, in the late 1960s, discovered that the Incan stone terraces had several unexpected advantages. The stone retaining walls heated up during the day and slowly released the heat to the soil as temperatures plunged at night, keeping the plants’ roots warm during the often frosty nights and expanding the growing season. The terraces are also extremely efficient at conserving scarce water from rain or irrigation canals. Kendall said, “We’ve excavated terraces, for example, six months after they’ve been irrigated they’re still damp inside. So if you have a drought, they’re the best possible mechanism.” She also goes on to state that the Incan terraces are even today probably the most sophisticated in the world, building upon roughly 11,000 years of farming.

In addition to the agricultural advances being made in the Andean region there were also advances being made in the Amazon River basin by farmers in the rainforest.  Here they developed a way to enhance soil to create what is known as terra preta, a soil with a large amount of charcoal in it that is rich in nutrients and in university trials, has increased crop yields up to 800%. In addition to higher yields this soil can control water and reduces leaching of nutrients from the soil. Recent research conducted shows high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium in the soil. We know that Terra Preta was a man made soil due to the discovery of unfired pottery in the soils, similar to the way modern gardeners add perlite or sand to potting mix. This serves as a way of keeping the soil from baking completely tight under the intense tropical sun before vegetation grew to cover the soil. The soil tends to be black or dark brown and the the way Terra Preta soil is made give it the ability to sequester carbon at such a high rate that it actually sequesters more carbon in its making than is used to make it, giving it the potential to help with the problem of climate change. The astonishing part is that this agricultural technology was made without modern science and was made by the early pre-Columbian South Americans; technology that was lost following the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. 

Though a lot of the traditions and cultural practices of these pre-Columbian South American civilizations would be largely lost, recent research and studies being conducted are revealing more information every day. Recent evidence suggests that the Norte Chico may have been the most densely populated area of the world at the time; the only exception could have been in northern China. Contrary to what was initially believed, many of these civilizations are what we consider advanced civilizations, which challenges much of what is left out of our history textbooks taught in schools today. 

Winklerprins, Antoinette. “Terra Preta.” The Soil Underfoot, 2014, 235-46. Accessed July 30, 2019. doi:10.1201/b16856-22.

Erickson, Clark L. “Raised Field Agriculture In the Lake Titicaca Basin.” Expedition30, no. 3. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cerickso/articles/Exped.pdf.

“Pre-Columbian Civilization.” Pre-Columbian Civilization. Accessed July 18, 2019. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Pre-Columbian_Civilization.

Smith, Michael E., and Katharina J. Schreiber. “New World States and Empires: Economic and Social Organization.” Journal of Archaeological Research 13, no. 3 (September 2005). doi:10.1007/s10814-005-3106-3

Jordan, David K. “Chronological Table of Mesoamerican Archaeology.” Jordan: Mesoamerican Chronology. April 04, 2019. Accessed July 18, 2019. http://pages.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/arch/mexchron.html.

O’Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 25