Book Review

DAVID BERESFORD-JONES. The lost woodlands of ancient Nasca: a case study in ecological and cultural collapse. 208 pages, 66 illustrations, 7 tables. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-726476-8 hardback £55 & $99.

Review by Kevin J. Vaughn
Department of Anthropology, Purdue University, USA

Vaughn image

Anyone who rides a bus on the Pan-American Highway from the Peruvian capital of Lima to Nasca, the centre of a pre-Inca civilisation of almost two millennia ago, is bound to be struck by the sheer desolation of the landscape through which they travel. Ica, a stop about two-thirds of the way through the journey, is an oasis in the desert fed today through intensive irrigation of the Ica River. Following the river to the south though, it is hard to imagine life ever thriving in such an inhospitable environment.

The central theme of this remarkable multi-disciplinary tale of ecological degradation and collapse by David Beresford-Jones is that the landscape that we see today on the south coast of Peru, and in particular the lower Ica Valley, is a human artefact. From approximately 750 BC to about AD 1000, Beresford-Jones argues that the lower Ica Valley was transformed from productive riparian woodland into a barren desert. Using geomorphology, pollen analysis, macrobotanical analysis, ethnohistory, ethnographic analogy and, of course, archaeology, Beresford-Jones details a highly readable account of what brought about this change.

The book is essentially divided into two parts bracketed by an introduction and conclusion. The first part, comprising Chapters 2–5, includes detailed evidence of the archaeological, geomorphological and archaeobotanical records of the lower Ica Valley. Combined, they demonstrate that beginning in the first millennium BC people in the lower Ica Valley grew cotton and collected wild resources from the ocean and the riparian woodland. By the end of the Early Intermediate period dating to the first half of the first millennium AD, and a period coinciding with the well-known Nasca civilisation, evidence for cultivation of maize and a full suite of Andean domesticates is present. The macrobotanical and palynological evidence is corroborated by archaeological evidence suggesting settlements tied to relict canals and implying fairly extensive—but ancient—irrigation. This agricultural system, present in the Early Intermediate period, appears to have collapsed by the Middle Horizon as the archaeological record reveals few settlements of this period in the lower Ica Valley.

The second part of the book, comprising Chapters 6–9, focuses on the huarango (Prosopis limensis) tree and its importance in the fragile ecosystem of this dry desert. As Beresford-Jones states eloquently: "The huarango is perhaps better viewed as the centre of a web of desert life, made up of millions of connections between organisms—many of which we have yet to understand—and from which humans are indivisible" (p. 169). Even during the Early Intermediate period, when humans were reliant on agriculture, huarango was necessary for the productivity of fields. It also provided—along with other wild foods—a substantial portion of the human diet. However, Beresford-Jones argues that, at some point in time, people began to over-exploit the huarango until, by the Middle Horizon, the damage was irreversible, leading to total environmental collapse.

The evidence is synthesised in Chapter 10, the book's conclusion. While there is carefully documented evidence for deforestation through time, the answer to the critical question of why people deforested the huarango woodlands in the lower Ica Valley is far more elusive. Ultimately, Beresford-Jones offers the suggestion (which he calls "speculative", p. 224) that the imperial policy of Wari demands for cotton and perhaps coca during the Middle Horizon may have been responsible. This is intriguing but, as of yet, there is little evidence to support the scenario. For now, more work will be needed before this specific hypothesis can be tested.

As an archaeologist working on the south coast of Peru, perhaps it is no surprise that I have some minor quibbles with some of the archaeological interpretations presented here. Some of these would certainly fail to raise eyebrows other than those of the specialist. For example, discrete phases of the archaeological sequence are combined here to form a rather long 'Early Nasca' phase, masking some of the documented and dramatic changes that took place in the region during the Early Intermediate period. There is also something of an over-reliance on the reporting of fieldwork from the 1980s (published in the early 1990s) from the ceremonial centre of Cahuachi, located in the Nasca Valley. Conversely, the work of a number of scholars conducting subsequent fieldwork at sites in Palpa and Nasca, each encompassing relevant pre-Inca periods, are de-emphasised in the analysis presented.

Nevertheless, and despite these minor reservations, the account of gradual environmental catastrophe that Beresford-Jones reconstructs in this book is authoritative and its conclusions regarding the lower Ica Valley are convincing. It is exceptionally readable and enjoyable, and is illustrated with remarkable photographs and figures. Reading this book made me think about the south coast environment in a completely different way. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the Andean past and the often tragic nature of human-environment interactions.