Science & Technology



What ancient farmers can really teach us about adapting to climate change – and how political power influences success or failure

Chelsea Fisher, University of South Carolina, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

In dozens of archaeological discoveries around the world, from the once-successful reservoirs and canals of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the deserted Viking colonies of Greenland, new evidence paints pictures of civilizations struggling with unforeseen climate changes and the reality that their farming practices had become unsustainable.

Among these discoveries are also success stories, where ancient farming practices helped civilizations survive the hard times.

Zuni farmers in the southwestern United States made it through long stretches of extremely low rainfall between A.D. 1200 and 1400 by embracing small-scale, decentralized irrigation systems. Farmers in Ghana coped with severe droughts from 1450 to 1650 by planting indigenous African grains, like drought-tolerant pearl millet.

Ancient practices like these are gaining new interest today. As countries face unprecedented heat waves, storms and melting glaciers, some farmers and international development organizations are reaching deep into the agricultural archives to revive these ancient solutions.

Drought-stricken farmers in Spain have reclaimed medieval Moorish irrigation technology. International companies hungry for carbon offsets have paid big money for biochar made using pre-Columbian Amazonian production techniques. Texas ranchers have turned to ancient cover cropping methods to buffer against unpredictable weather patterns.

But grasping for ancient technologies and techniques without paying attention to historical context misses one of the most important lessons ancient farmers can reveal: Agricultural sustainability is as much about power and sovereignty as it is about soil, water and crops.


I’m an archaeologist who studies agricultural sustainability in the past. Discoveries in recent years have shown how the human past is full of people who dealt with climate change in both sustainable and unsustainable ways. Archaeologists are finding that ancient sustainability was tethered closely to politics. However, these dynamics are often forgotten in discussions of sustainability today.

In the tropical lowlands of Mexico and Central America, Indigenous Maya farmers have been practicing milpa agriculture for thousands of years. Milpa farmers adapted to drought by gently steering forest ecology through controlled burns and careful woodland conservation.

The knowledge of milpa farming empowered many rural farmers to navigate climate changes during the notorious Maya Collapse – two centuries of political disintegration and urban depopulation between A.D. 800 to 1000. Importantly, later Maya political leaders worked with farmers to keep this flexibility. Their light-handed approach is still legible in the artifacts and settlement patterns of post-Collapse farming communities and preserved in the flexible tribute schedules for Maya farmers documented by 16th century Spanish monks.

In my book, “Rooting in a Useless Land: Ancient Farmers, Celebrity Chefs, and Environmental Justice in Yucatán,” I trace the deep history of the Maya milpa. Using archaeology, I show how ancient farmers adapted milpa agriculture in response to centuries of drought and political upheaval.


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