Ancient Technologies Against Soil Erosion: Terracing’s Legacy

Since its beginning more than 10,000 years ago, agriculture has created intense ecological damage. Some argue that soil degradation trumps all other human-induced impacts on our landscape. Plowing and planting significantly impacts the fertility and structure of soil. The plowing of land creates soil that helps crop grow, but water and wind easily carries away the precious topsoil. As a result, the fertile topsoil slowly disappears the more land is farmed, thereby making farming more difficult.

Ancient people involved in agriculture used various techniques to minimize this soil erosion. One such technology was terracing, a method of artificially flattening land for crop cultivation (Treacy). This allowed farmers to grow on hillsides and mountains, and not limited to floodplains as they had been before. Terracing arose independently across the globe and many ancient civilizations used this farming technique, including the Inca and Aztec (Sandor). Some studies date terracing as far back as the Chalcolithic era in modern-day Israel/Palestine (Gibson).

Many different styles of terraces exist. Important features of terraces include retaining walls that hold the soil, degrees of slope, and self-filling or hand-filled terraces. The horizontal fields created allowed for easier crop cultivation and irrigation on sloped areas (Treacy).

Historians argue that soil erosion was not the primary force driving farmers to begin terracing. Population growth, changing social and labor structures, trading, and irrigation are all factors that possibly encouraged the creation of terraces (Gibson, Rodriguez, Treacy). Because soil erosion creates subtle change to the landscape, historians believe that the first people to use terracing were not aware of its impact on the soil. Trying to pinpoint the primary reason for terracing often ignores the complex relationship between humans and the natural world, and casts aside the important social functions of terraces. Regardless of the reason for their creation, the benefits to soil health and erosion demonstrates terracing’s most important contribution to farming (Rodriguez).

Most of the research surrounding terracing focuses on how terracing impacts soil quality and finding the potential for indigenous practices like terracing to influence modern agriculture. Scientists estimate that 1.5 inches of topsoil disappears every year as a result of increased mechanization. To find solutions  to this, soil scientists and agronomists look to indigenous methods of farming, including terracing. There are dramatic changes in topsoil losses under terraced vs not terraced conditions. In one study, terraces decreased soil loss by 19 tons per hectare while in another study it decreased by 62 tons per hectare. As demonstrated by Dorren and Rey’s review of terracing, significant modern research being done on soil erosion and terracing. This ancient technology is reappearing to save our soil.



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5 Replies to “Ancient Technologies Against Soil Erosion: Terracing’s Legacy”

  1. I never realized that farming caused such great amounts of ecological damage. Knowing that these terraces only work in mountainous or hill-filled areas, is there anything that can be done to curb the erosion in flatter areas, like the majority of farmland in the United States?

    1. Yeah! There’s a lot of different techniques like conservation tillage (not tilling as much) and using cover crops. They aren’t perfect solutions, but t’s better than conventional practices I think.

  2. One of the things I found most interesting is that it seems many ancient peoples did not begin terracing to reduce soil erosion, and instead that the reduction in erosion was an unforeseen benefit. This really reflects the relationship between science and technology, I think. The importance and damage of erosion wouldn’t become obvious until much later, but there was already a technological solution to the problem! I also wonder if it is feasible to restructure our agriculture system to include terrace farming. Is it more of a small scale solution?

  3. Abbi, I found your article quite informative. It is important to know the history behind different cultivating techniques because it is like you said, scientists now are analyzing these techniques and learning that they are effective ways to solve today’s soil erosion issues. This could be extremely important in the United States for farmers across the country.
    I found an article that discusses the issues of soil erosion that could spell catastrophe if left unchecked. The article goes on to explain how important the need for an increase in food production is for a world population expected to reach 9-billion by 2050. I think that your article compliments this one nicely as a possible solution to aid in solving issues concerning cultivation production hazards.

    –Jordan Dickey

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