Future past

DIGGING up ancient cities and villages provides valuable historical insights and often makes interesting tourist attractions. But surely solving agricultural problems in developing countries today lies not in archaeology but in forward-looking fields such as biotechnology, plant biology, or chemistry. Not necessarily. At Peru's Lake Titicaca, in the Andes, archaeologists have reconstructed a method of farming that dates back 3,000 years but died out before the Spanish arrived in the New World. Water from nearby lakes or rivers flowed through tightly spaced canals, moistening narrow, raised earthen platforms between the canals. The plants grew on the platforms, while aquatic life in the canals provided nutrients. The ancients' only investment? Labor. The researchers find that yields match or exceed those of fields using modern techniques. The platforms are more resistant to drought, freezing, and flooding than fields using modern mechanized methods.

Researchers are optimistic that the approach can be applied to some developing countries, avoiding the high cost of mechanized agriculture.

Two messages seem to come from this research: (1)Big-ticket, high-tech science projects should not be allowed to drain money from smaller research projects that arguably make a greater contribution to meeting pressing human needs; (2)the vision necessary to help meet those needs may lie as much in looking back as in looking forward.

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