Why the Nasca's big mistake was to cut down the huarango tree

Clearing key trees left pre-Inca culture exposed to floods and drought

At the height of their power, the Nasca had mastered the craft of weaving elaborate textiles and the art of painting fine, multicoloured pottery. They etched giant figures in the desert that only made sense if seen from the air, and they irrigated their crops with a network of underground aqueducts.

For more than eight centuries, the Nasca culture prospered in the coastal valleys of Peru until its sudden downfall around 600 AD, which many experts put down to the torrential rains and dramatic flooding brought on by one of the worst El Nino events in a millennium.

But a team of archaeologists has now found convincing evidence that this was only part of the story. The researchers believe the decline was self-inflicted and began with the cutting down of a tree that could have protected them from devastating climate change.

The Nasca, one of the most important of the pre-Inca civilisations of South America, are most famous for the "Nasca Lines", a series of elaborate geoglyphs etched into the desert covering huge areas, depicting animals, deities and geometric shapes.

After the Nasca Lines were discovered by the first passenger flights over the region, some pseudoscience authors suggested that since they could only be seen frome above, they must have been made with the help of space aliens. It is now accepted that the geoglyphs were created mundanely with long ropes tied to stakes in the ground, rather like present-day crop circles.

The Nasca survived in the semi-arid region by building irrigation canals to grow crops such as maize, squash, sweet potato and manioc. This reliable food supply enabled them to build a relatively sophisticated civilisation based on art and ritual, which nevertheless included the unpleasant practice of collecting severed heads as trophies.

All this came to an abrupt end, according to a new study, because the Nasca made the mistake of cutting down the huarango tree which would have protected them from the El Nino flooding and subsequent soil erosion and drought that turned the lush agricultural land into desert.

"The huarango is a remarkable nitrogen-fixing tree and it was an important source of food, forage, timber and fuel for the people," said David Beresford-Jones, an archaeologist and Nasca expert at the University of Cambridge. "It is the ecological keystone species in the desert zone, enhancing soil fertility and moisture, ameliorating desert extremes in the microclimate beneath its canopy and underpinning the floodplain with one of the deepest root systems of any tree known."

The researchers have excavated the lower Ica Valley of the Nasca domain and found clear evidence that vast swathes of huarango trees had been cut down to make way for crops. Dr Beresford-Jones believes that the Nasca eventually changed the landscape forever. "In time, gradual woodland clearance crossed an ecological threshold, which is sharply defined in such desert environments, exposing the landscape to the region's extraordinary desert winds and the effects of El Nino floods."

The huarango tree plays a "profound role" in preserving the sort of semi-arid environments where the Nasca lived, the scientists say in their study. "Successful agriculture is just not possible here without the protection afforded by trees. Indeed, these findings have undoubted contemporary resonance."

When the El Nino struck, the river cut into its floodplain, washed away the soil and destroyed the Nasca irrigation systems, making the farmland unworkable. The generations of Nasca that followed suffered higher infant mortalities and lower adult life expectancy.

Eventually, the Nasca capital of Cahuachi was abandoned and all that was left of the culture were archaeological artifacts.

Lost civilisations: Destroyed by nature

*Easter Island

It is thought that the native people felled the majority of the island's trees between 1200 AD and 1500 AD. The loss of palm trees upset the eco-system, driving away wildlife and drying up water supplies.

*Maya

Mayan civilisation stretched across the Yucatan Peninsula until 900 AD when cities were mysteriously abandoned. It is believed that the culture was wiped out by a series of droughts.

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering