The last time global warming came to the Andes it produced the Inca Empire. A team of English and U.S. scientists has analyzed pollen, seeds and isotopes in core samples taken from the deep mud of a small lake not far from Machu Picchu and their report says that "the success of the Inca was underpinned by a period of warming that lasted more than four centuries."
The four centuries coincided directly with the rise of this startling, hyper-productive culture that at its zenith was bigger than the Ming Dynasty China and the Ottoman Empire, the two most powerful contemporaries of the Inca.
"This period of increased temperatures," the scientists say, "allowed the Inca and their predecessors to expand, from AD 1150 onwards, their agricultural zones by moving up the mountains to build a massive system of terraces fed frequently by glacial water, as well as planting trees to reduce erosion and increase soil fertility.
"They re-created the landscape and produced the huge surpluses of maize, potatoes, quinua and other crops that freed a rapidly growing population to build roads, scores of palaces like Machu Picchu and in particular the development of a large standing army."
No World Bank, no NGOs.
The new study is called "Putting the Rise of the Inca within a Climatic and Land Management Context" and was prepared by Alex Chepstow-Lusty, an English paleo-biologist working for the French Institute of Andean Studies, in Lima. Alex led a team that includes Brian Bauer, of the University of Illinois, one of today's top Inca-ologists. The study is being published in Climate of the Past, an online academic journal.
Alex spends a lot of time in Cuzco and he told me the other day that the report "raises the question of whether today's global warming may be another opportunity for the Andes."
The core samples from the sediment of the little lake, Marcacocha, in the Patakancha valley above Ollantaytambo, show that there was a major cold drought in the southern Andes beginning in 880 AD lasting for a devastating century-plus through into 1000AD. This cold snap finished off both the Wari and the Tiahuanaco cultures which had between them dominated the southern Andes for more than a millennium.
It was at this same time that the Classic Maya disappeared in Yucatan. It was also a time, on the other side of the Pacific when major migrations from East Asia took place into Polynesia, an indication of a major Niño event; a Niño sees western Pacific currents switch to flow from West to East.
Core samples from glaciers and from the mud beneath lakes in the Andes, the Amazon and elsewhere have built up a history of the world's climate and the message is crystal clear. It is that changes have taken place in the past, during the six or seven thousand years of our agriculture-based civilizations, that are just as big as the ones we are facing from today's CO2 warming.
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