Inca Bench Terraces

Date: 1460
Owner: iStock Photo
Source Type: Images


The Incas carved out these bench terraces, or andenes, to create level platforms for growing crops on the steep slopes of the Andes. The bench terraces shown here are located at Machu Picchu and would have been used to provide maize or potatoes for this remote city. Although andenes are just one of several types of terraced fields used in Peru, they are the most spectacular example of how Incan and pre-Incan Indian groups manipulated their environment to facilitate agriculture. Each bench terrace is about 5-15 meters wide, separated by a high, inward-leaning wall, and they often have built in irrigation systems that channel water from the highest level to the lowest. The rocks, and sometimes even the topsoil, used to build these terraces had to be transported by hand from the valleys below.

Some archaeologists date the oldest examples of Andean terracing back to around 2000 BCE, yet many shelves continue to be cultivated today. Like the chinampas used by Aztecs, bench terraces not only create arable land out of otherwise neglected spaces but do so in a way that encourages water distribution and high crop yields. Although they once supported empires, it is ironic that both andenes and chinampas are now necessary for many indigenous peoples who need to use these ancient technologies to produce food on the non-ideal lands to which they have been relegated. Large farms using modern technology have come to dominate much of the terrain, yet terraforming still allows marginalized peoples to earn a living.

Reference: Denevan, William W. Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2003.

CITATION: Denevan, William M. Inca Fields in Machu Picchu. Courtesy of iStockPhoto. File Number: 4122336.