In December 1986, 31 archaeologists, historians, ethnohistorians, botanists, anthropologists, geographers, and agronomists gathered in Mexico City for the “First Colloquium on Indigenous Agriculture: Past and Present.” This book demonstrates how well they succeeded in providing an overview of recent research from a diverse array of academic disciplines.
Some of the contributors take a critical view of the work of previous scholars. Mari Carmen Serra Puche uses excavation data from Terremote Tlaltenco, a remnant island in Lake Chalco-Xochimilco, to cast doubt on the position that population growth led to agricultural intensification throughout the Basin of Mexico. Serra Puche sees no evidence of agricultural intensification at Terremote Tlaltenco, but she does report an increase in the specialized exploitation of certain lacustrine resources between the Middle and Late Formative periods, a time of demographic growth in the basin. She suggests that the specialized inhabitants of Terremote obtained the agricultural products they did not produce themselves through exchange with mainland villages.
Linda Manzanilla questions the conclusions of several well-known irrigation studies. She doubts the credibility of the Formative canals at Santa Clara Coatitlán, and expresses skepticism toward the view that irrigation agriculture played an important role in Teotihuacán’s economy. She suggests that most of the fossilized (travertine-lined) canals of Tehuacán are actually natural features, and argues that Tehuacán’s Purrón Dam was built during the Postclassic and not the Late/Terminal Preclassic period, as reported by earlier investigators, even though the locality’s population history and the dam’s stratigraphy support the latter interpretation. Her general point is well taken: researchers should pay greater attention to the quality and quantity of evidence used to assess hypotheses about hydraulic agriculture.
Lorenzo Ochoa is unconvinced that intensive agriculture was as widespread in the lowland Maya area as some scholars have claimed. He presents three cases in which, he feels, natural features have been misinterpreted as drained fields, canals, and agricultural terraces. By contrast, Angel García Cook and B. Leonor Merino Carrión draw on their own extensive fieldwork to argue that chinampas, canal irrigation, and terraces were highly characteristic of pre-Hispanic agriculture in the Basin of Puebla-Tlaxcala. Jorge Angulo describes a cistern-drainage type of hydraulic system at Chalcatzingo in the adjoining state of Morelos, one of several water management facilities found at the site.
The real stregth of this volume lies in its combination of the archaeological papers with historical, ethnohistorical, and ethnographic contributions that contain detailed information on agricultural practices in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and twentieth centuries. Especially notable is the paper by Cristina Mapes, Victor Toledo, Narciso Barreda, and Javier Caballero, a thorough, data-rich review of the abundant literature on agriculture in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin.