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UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Chinampa agriculture : the operation of an intensive pre industrial resource system in the Valley of Mexico Robertson, Alastair J.


During the 14th and 15th Centuries the complex of marshes and shallow lakes that occupied the low elevations of the Valley of Mexico were thoroughly modified by the construction of thousands of small agricultural platforms known as chinampas, and of an elaborate network of dykes, canals and aqueducts. A quantified model of the hydrological systems of the Valley indicates that under natural conditions water levels fluctuated to such an extent that the productivity of chinampa platforms would have been limited. The larger hydraulic installations smoothed these fluctuations in the upstream portions of the lake complex and so permitted the agricultural exploitation of these areas. On the platforms seedbedding and other intensive horticultural techniques were employed which allowed the maximum utilization of the controlled hydraulic environment. Canals were exploited not only for irrigation water but also as reservoirs for plant nutrients, which promoted a conservative use of materials in the system as a whole. Communities of non-crop plants were maintained on the platform border and these protected crops from climatic extremes, and may also have been important in regulating populations of insect pests. The hydraulic installations were managed by high-ranking officials of the Aztec state, while the chinampa platforms were to a large extent managed by their cultivators. Although managerial decisions were made by individuals of widely different rank, there was a tendency for decision-making to occur at the lowest hierarchic level compatible with the ability of the manager to command the labour and materials necessary to implement the decision. This allowed managers to respond rapidly and efficiently to small variations in the conditions of the physical systems that they managed. The available data indicate that the chinampas produced high and sustained yields per unit area and did so without requiring large subsidies of energy and materials. The physical, ecological and managerial principles of chinampa agriculture are therefore relevant to the design of modern agricultural systems that seek to exhibit these general properties.

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