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Ingenious Indigenous: Inca Environmentalism

Updated: May 5, 2021

It is common for societies to treasure the land that sustains them; a deep respect for the Earth is what made many civilizations successful. Hawaiians limited fishing to prevent depleting the aquatic population, Californian tribes like the Yurok people practiced controlled burns for forest fire prevention, and modern tribal leaders of the Amazon rainforest protest corporations destroying their land. The effort of creating community guidelines in accordance with natural processes is key to a stable society.

[Ceramics and tapestry from the Inca and ancestry societies. Photos taken at Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano courtesy of Pedro Rodrigues]

Archaeological findings have revealed the Inca to be the oldest civilization with known laws on conservation and species protection. Like most indigenous civilizations, the Inca Empire recognized the importance of natural resources. For example, they wisely collected bird guano (excrement) to fertilize the Empire’s agricultural lands. However, their appreciation went beyond social expectations because the Inca protected the birds and their coastal habitat through legislation too. They were determined to protect the ecosystem from malicious or avaricious individuals, and committed time and resources to do so.

The South American west coast is one of the most arid deserts on the planet. This dry ecosystem demands farmers use irrigation and fertilization techniques to yield a successful crop. The Inca Empire covered modern Peru, Bolivia, and Chile during the 15th century CE and needed to sustain food production for 8-10 million citizens. The South American coastline isn’t ideal for agriculture: rocky coasts, arid hills and valleys, and steep Andean mountains. So, human designed terracing, irrigating, and fertilizing were vital to the Inca’s success.

(Peruvian booby (left), Peruvian pelican (middle), and Guanay cormorant (right) by Marcelo Flores)

Archaeologists pieced together a sophisticated penal code prohibiting hunting, trespassing, or bothering certain birds under penalty of death. The Inca recognized the guano they produced was essential to food security and had no qualms about protecting this resource. These birds were the Guanay Cormorant (Leucocarbo bougainvillii), Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus) and Peruvian Booby (Sula variegata). These valuable birds live along the rocky coastline and the offshore Chincha Islands. In order to control availability and protection of the Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican and Peruvian Booby the Inca Empire levied specific regulations for guano collection. Regional and royal leaders organized a distribution network to transport guano to farmers thousands of miles away. Incan highways facilitated smooth transportation to every ecosystem in the empire, even steep mountain cities like Machu Picchu. The Inca Empire was diverse in ecosystems and cultures, so implementing clear laws was essential to maintaining control.

During the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire, warfare and chickenpox wiped out entire towns. Without people to save and preserve items of value, most quipu’s (knotted communication) and other administrative objects were destroyed. Therefore, no explicit descriptions of these conservation laws exist. However, recovered Spanish notebooks detail guano collection which corroborates with ceramic Incan art celebrating the coastal birds.

The Inca were wise to reinforce environmental appreciation with legislation. Modern countries with large and diverse communities would do well to emulate the Inca and other indigenous cultures in this way (without the death penalty). Even a comparatively small space like California is heavily dependent on ecosystems like the coastal wetlands. But. many surviving regions are at risk due to construction or pollution. This habitat is crucial for water filtration, flood control, and coastline erosion control; all crucial for maintaining California’s shipping, fishing, and tourism economies. The Inca educated themselves about their environment in order to use it sustainably, and this detailed understanding is what makes the most effective legislation. In order to preserve and strengthen natural spaces it is essential the government plays a strong role in protecting them.

By implementing a penal code to protect coastal birds and their home the Inca successfully fueled the Empire’s food production to sustain growth and quality of life. Their legislation allowed Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican and Peruvian Booby populations to thrive, creating a symbiotic relationship between humans and birds. The Inca displayed masterful leadership over their massive empire, and modern countries like the USA would benefit by emulating them. The Inca’s bird protection program is currently the earliest known environmental conservation in human history. Glory to the guano!

Special thanks to researchers Pedro Rodrigues and Joana Micael for their brilliant research, Marcelo Flores for his bird photographs, and Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano for their ceramic photographs.

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