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date: 25 May 2020

(p. 388) Reviving Past Technologies (p. 389) (p. 390)

Abstract and Keywords

The author was project leader on an attempt to revive ancient irrigation practices on Aneityum Island (Vanuatu, S. Pacific) in 1980, based on his archaeological and ethnoarchaeological research on the island. Here he tries to reconstruct the context and his rationale for instigating such a project. While successful in a technical sense—abandoned irrigation systems were indeed brought back into use as planned—the project was set up in the absence of a defined market and marketing policy. Inevitably it soon collapsed when the taro that was produced remained unsold. But all was not lost after all and a seed was sown. Recent reports from participants in the original project suggest that the ancient techniques that were re-taught to a wide section of the Island’s community in 1980 have not been forgotten. These productive techniques are increasingly being reapplied on Aneityum in a time of rapid population growth.

Although the term ‘applied archaeology’ has been used to cover a variety of approaches, the authors in this section tend to employ the term in the way it was first employed by Clark Erickson (1992), i.e. in reference to the potential benefits of reusing abandoned technologies, or of extending the use of technologies or practices that are in the process of falling into disuse. Indeed, four chapters in this section (Cooper and Duncan, Kendall and Drew, Herrera, and Spriggs) make direct reference to Erickson’s ground-breaking attempts in the 1980s to reconstruct and reuse agricultural raised fields in highland Peru, the majority of which date to the first millennium ad. Herrera presents a brief history of Erickson’s project and of those elsewhere in Peru and Bolivia that drew inspiration from it, while chapters by Spriggs and by Kendall and Drew outline the histories of projects with similar aims: Kendall and Drew offering insights from the work of the Cusichaca Trust to renovate and reuse Inca and pre-Inca agricultural terraces and irrigation channels in Peru, whereas Spriggs summarizes his own attempts to re-establish irrigated taro faming on Aneityum Island in the South Pacific. The chapter by Caponetti, in contrast, makes no reference to this earlier work in applied archaeology but instead offers the crucial perspective of a farmer who is currently using ancient irrigation structures on his own land, in this case an Etruscan tunnel connected to an aquifer that has supplied water to the author’s community for over 2,500 years. The chapters thus present important insights resulting from the successes and failures of these projects, with three (Caponetti, Kendall and Drew, and Spriggs) written by people who have actually tried to put these ideas into practice.

Taken together all five chapters highlight issues that all previous attempts to revive or extend technologies have had to deal with. At the risk of overly simplifying these issues, these broad themes can be loosely categorized as (1) the need for active and informed community involvement if these projects are to be a success; (2) the recognition that technologies are or become socially embedded, making it difficult to understand or even maintain them without knowledge of these social, cultural, or economic relationships; (p. 392) (3) that it is necessary to think about the scales (both in terms of time and place) at which former or current resource-use strategies operated or continue to operate; (4) that the ‘revival’ of a resource-use strategy must be seen as a new approach, not simply as the recreation of an old one; and (5) that someone—and certainly not necessarily the person or group that initiated the project—needs to decide what the developmental aims of the intervention actually are, for example whether it is designed to produce a saleable surplus and thus improve livelihoods by increasing monetary wealth, or whether production and surpluses are for subsistence and are thus intended to increase food security.

The first of these—the need for community ‘buy in’—might seem blindingly obvious (particularly to professional development practitioners) but as Herrera points out projects continue to be initiated without community consultation, either in terms of what the project is designed to do, or in terms of whether the approach to be applied is suitable for all locations. This can lead to multiple problems, with the chapters by Spriggs and by Kendall and Drew noting that the communities they worked with were understandably reluctant to commit without guarantees of entitlements to land, while Herrera notes that some projects in the Andes took a ‘one size fits all’ approach to constructing raised fields regardless of local soil or climatic conditions (see also Renard et al., 2012), and in several cases used mechanical excavators to construct mere facsimiles of raised fields that inverted the sub- and topsoils, restricting agricultural productively as a consequence. This need for commitment by the local community is also highlighted by Kendall and Drew who note that the revival of technologies is often impossible without the simultaneous revival or replacement of systems that organize the labour needed to operate and maintain these technologies; a fact highlighted as a cause of project failures by Herrera, and succinctly illustrated in the history of the Cusichaca Trust when it became clear that the traditional system of reciprocal labour exchanges and communal maintenance days had fallen into disuse. Systems that perform these functions need to be instituted, but this does not mean that they should necessarily attempt to mimic earlier systems, not least because, as Spriggs notes, socially embedded technologies can also become enmeshed in cultural or religious taboos that may be impossible to recreate or might conflict with the aims of the developmental initiative (see also Sheridan, 2002).

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from these chapters is that these systems—both the technologies themselves and the social and economic structures that support them—can and should be allowed to evolve, with both Herrera and Spriggs reporting that local communities have successfully revived agricultural technologies long after external attempts to recreate them had failed. ‘Rehabilitated’ technologies are not living museums, which means that participants should be free to choose whether projects should be subsistence or market oriented, and indeed individuals are likely to adapt their strategies between these two extremes as conditions change and opportunities arise. For those of us who study human history in one form or another this recognition that change and adaption is inevitable is something of a truism, so it should seem foolish to contribute to developmental initiatives that ‘fetishize’ market production (to use the term preferred by Herrera), or which ignore the potential benefits of combining old and new technologies: for which see Caponetti’s account of connecting solar-powered (p. 393) pumps to a 2,000-year-old water tunnel and, conversely, Kendall and Drew’s early rejection of using modern concrete within reconstructed irrigation channels.

Recognizing that systems change through time also means appreciating that systems might be designed to operate over time scales that are not immediately obvious. Herrera, for example, notes that some raised field rehabilitation projects in South America failed to factor in the need for periodic fallowing, while Cooper and Duncan argue that house design in the Caribbean factored in the devastating effects of hurricanes that might hit a particular community only once in a decade. As importantly, just as temporal scales need to be understood, so do spatial scales, with Herrera critiquing some rehabilitation initiatives for focusing on individual fields or communities rather than on entire watersheds, and with Cooper and Duncan noting that a disruption in settlement patterns in the Caribbean following European colonization meant that local communities became focused on their immediate surroundings and thus less connected to a wide range of resources and to neighbouring communities that could assist them in times of crisis. Spriggs makes a similar point, concluding that his first attempt to kick-start commercial taro production on Aneityum Island failed because the project did not originally ascertain whether a market existed for the crops produced, or whether the island was sufficiently connected to the markets that did exist. This reminds us that demand for commodities fluctuates (as does the desirability of particular lifestyles), and that the factors influencing these changes may take place at national, regional, or even global scales. This point is aptly made by Kendall and Drew who note that in the 1990s the threat posed by Sendero Luminoso terrorists faded and thus created opportunities for local communities to benefit from a growth in tourism, thereby decreasing the need for, and attraction of, labour-intensive terraced and irrigated agriculture.

Thinking on a global scale also raises the issue of climate change and its local impacts; a concern highlighted in one form or another by all the authors in this section. Although Herrera is right to note that this concern has sometimes been used somewhat rhetorically to justify developmental interventions, Spriggs nevertheless ends his chapter with the personal observation that decreasing rainfall levels and an increase in destructive storms is now more of a threat to the ‘traditional’ agriculture on Aneityum Island than the loss of the agricultural knowledge that his original project was designed to redress. Ultimately, particular local technologies—whether in existence for centuries, or revived and adapted after a period of abandonment—may prove unsustainable in the face of future climate change, but the chapters in this section discuss important issues of scale, connectedness, and adaptation that were evidently relevant to communities in the past, and will remain so in the future.

Erickson, C. L. (1992). Archaeology’s potential contribution to the future. Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 20: 1–16.Find this resource:

(p. 394) Renard, D., Iriate, J., Birk, J. J., Rostain, S., Glaser, B., and McKey, D. (2012). Ecological engineers ahead of their time: the functioning of pre-Columbian raised-field agriculture and its potential contributions to sustainability today. Ecological Engineering 45: 30–44.Find this resource:

Sheridan, M. J. (2002). An irrigation intake is like a uterus: culture and agriculture in precolonial North Pare, Tanzania. American Anthropologist 104(1): 79–92.Find this resource: