Difficult Words No 9: Suka Kullus
Being weak is an interesting thing. For most of the animal kingdom, it’s a fatal flaw. But for humans, weakness — the inability to inflict our will — is something else altogether. In fact, the preponderance of humanity’s moments of real boldness, of deathless against-all-odds achievement — whether it’s flying to the moon with less computational power than a smartphone or Roman aqueducts that still function 2,000 years later — arise from accepting that weakness and applying a little mental judo. After all, if you can’t overwhelm it, you’ve got to be sly, to understand that there’s a lever hidden in cleverness.
After writing about the ancient pre-columbian civilization of Tiwanaku, I found myself intrigued by what, exactly, enabled the inhabitants of the inhospitable altiplano to build such an agricultural base that they founded an empire. Burning in the day, freezing at night, plagued by either drought or flood, the altiplano is the antithesis of the kind of terrain that usually sprouts empires, whether that be the Fertile Crescent or the the North American Midwest.
The heart of Tiwanakuan agriculture was something by the name of suka kullus (or sometimes suka kollus, these things get fuzzy when the culture you’re talking about expired 500 years before Columbus). A 17th Century priest by the name of Bertonio gathered up a vocabulary of the Aymara language and in that he states that “suka” means a “ridge of pools” and “kollu” equates to a pile of some sort. The suka kullus perfected by the Tiwanaku people were essentially a kind of flooded-raised-field. They constructed long, sinuous fields, faintly ridged, following the contours of the land, and divided from one another by small, water-filled channels.
At first glance, it doesn’t look like much. But that’s where the strength of weakness comes into play. Once the hard work of building the suka kullus was done, the impossible work was performed by a variety of natural processes.
Let’s start with the problem of temperature. Frost is a big problem on the altiplano; it drops to freezing much of the year, and that makes the soil warm only slowly in the spring. But the Tiwanakuans, in the city a four hour walk from the shores of the highest navigable lake in the world, had unquestionably noticed that it was milder by the shore. The water absorbed the warmth of intense high altitude sun, and released it after sunset.
The channels of the suka kullus do the exact same thing, acting as solar storage cells, stockpiling warmth in the day and dispersing it at night. It seems clever, if pretty straightforward, but that’s underestimating what’s really happening here. At night, the evaporating water creates a warm, humid layer which actually flows towards the top of each ridge, a kind of convection current that ensures the warm water doesn’t just effect the edges of the field but reaches to the middle, the top of the ridge.
The most feared frosts come from the sajama, the desert zone, where the bone dry air bleeds away heat. On these nights, crops growing in the ordinary pampas freeze solid in only a few hours. But the suka kullus puts up a visible defense; when the warm waters meet the freeze-dried air, a ground fog emerges, blanketing the fields in warmth.
It’s not just the air. The warm water also directly affects the soil of the raised beds, heating the ground around 8 degrees warmer than the surrounding soils. The warmer soil — in conjunction with the humid air — allows the plants to more effectively absorb nutrients. And there’s more. The harshness of the altiplano makes it just possible to eke out a single harvest, if all goes well. But the accelerated heating of the soil in the suka kullus means that the Tiwanakuans could actually produce two harvests per year — a 100% increase in yield. Or, more interestingly, different kinds of yield. The speed with which the crops grow in the suka kullus means that you have ability to grow grains, then vegetables, or perhaps human food and then animal feed from the same field, in the same year.
Where, aside from llama dung, might those nutrients come from? Turns out the suka kullus has this covered, too. In the warm, slow-moving water of the channels, all sorts of life springs up — water-loving plants, outright seaweeds, insects, molluscs, small fish and even colonies of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It’s an oasis for them — until winter comes and all the water dries up. Tough luck if you’re a fish or a reed. But if you’re a farmer, it’s mana from heaven. All that biomass decomposes at the bottom of the channels into concentrated fertilizer, conveniently located directly only steps from where you need it.
The channels also act to compensate for both flood and drought in that the channels can be opened to carry away flood waters if need be, and they can also be shut tight to retain water during drought. The hydraulic engineering of the Tiwanaku, although built with the humblest of tools and materials, is remarkably sophisticated. Holding ponds that flank the fields provide water storage. Gates between channels control the flow, which must be very specific, slow enough to absorb and disperse heat in basically the same place and allow biomass to accumulate instead of being washed away.
At the same time, they do have to move. The soils of the altiplano are natural salty. Not so salty that you can’t plant in them, but salty enough that plants struggle. Here, too, the suka kullus come into play. Every time the rain falls, it flows gently down the sides of the ridges, taking with it some of that salt. It flows into the channels which gradually carry that salt downstream and away from the fields. Over time, the suka kullus actually functions to desalinate the land, making it less salty in a process opposite to the what happens with modern industrial irrigation systems.
How about pest control? In a turn that would warm a permaculturalist’s heart, the reeds of the channel form attractive habitat for both birds and amphibians such as frogs and toads. All of these creatures specialize in insect predation, which means that plague control is not only well in hand, but out of mind.
I must, however, admit that there are limits to the powers of the suka kullus. They provide no advantage over planting the pampas when it comes to hailstorms, an all-too-common event on the altiplano. That said, the hail-damaged crops of the suka kullus partially recover, while the plants on the pampas just give up the ghost.
All this, you must admit, is remarkable. But you may well be thinking about the work that goes into building the suka kullus. Tiwanaku, after all, was a civilization without draught animals; every foot of channel was dug, and every inch of ridge raised, completely by hand. Ancient civilizations did plenty of things that remain impressive, but are now only curiosities. The Great Pyramid may be great, but we’re hardly about to build a new one.
The humble suka kullus, however, merits greater reflection. Consider that traditional agriculture in the altiplano renders up 2.4 metric tons of potatoes for every hectare planted. Modern agriculture in the same place, with the full arsenal of pesticides and fertilizers, cranks that up to 14.5 metric tons. The suka kullus? Twenty-one metric tons, fully sustainable.
How, you may wonder, do we know all this about an agriculture and a civilization that vanished 500 years before the arrival of the Spanish? The answer is that the suka kullus are back. The lingering academic question of how Tiwanaku supported its empire eventually yielded to archaeological discoveries of the suka kullus. That, in turn, lead to some experimental reconstructions in the 1980s by researchers from the University of Chicago. They knew they were on to something when, in 1988, a killing frost wiped out 70-90% of the region’s production, while the reconstituted suka kullus fields lost only 10%.
Since the 1990s, the Prosuko Project has been helping the distant descendants of those who first devised the suka kullus to recover its secrets. Partly, this was a process of archaeological reconstruction, but it was also about the archaeology of memory. A thousand years after the fall of Tiwanaku, threads and fragments of the knowledge which originally built the suka kullus still lived in the oral traditions of the achachilas and amautas, the elders who had never quite forgotten.
Just how you preserve thousand year old knowledge without the aid of books is an interesting point. Everyone who knows the details of medieval French freshwater aquaculture raise your hand. Okay, okay, that’s not quite fair. For an industrial culture predicated on progress, all knowledge arrives with a “soon to be obsolete” sticker on its forehead. But for a traditional agricultural society, time is a circle, not an arrow, what’s past is inevitably prologue. That means that you don’t really need to remember for a thousand years, you just need to remember one year, one full cycle of seasons, and even we can manage to remember how to put together thanksgiving from year to year.
But it got tougher when the Spanish rode over the hill. The indigenous knowledge was something to be appropriated where monetizable, and exterminated everywhere else. For the indigenous of the altiplano, the message never varied: you are poor, you are ignorant, you are backward. These days, Bolivia may officially enshrine respect of its indigenous cultures and have an indigenous president, but it inhabits a market-world which transmits the updated mantra of the Spanish Empire on all channels, all the time: you are poor, you are ignorant, you are backward, buy stuff and feel better. In short, “you are weak.”
For a long time, the indigenous of the altiplano believed that. But, slowly, they remembered that while it’s wise to humble one’s self before the forces of nature, it’s another thing entirely to show the same respect to the forces of the market.
For Tiwanaku, the suka kullus was the foundation of empire. For the modern day indigenous people of the altiplano, the suka kullus is a means of resisting empire, a means of feeding the body without selling the soul. The communal nature of the suka kullus — it takes a village to raise them and a village to keep them — re-energizes the indigenous farmers even as it allows them to flourish on the small plots they have been relegated to, and it produces enough surplus to allow them to not be overwhelmed by the market economy they are embedded within. In short, it’s a happy story in a part of the world where happy stories have been in short supply for centuries. And for the rest of us, it’s a reminder that it’s okay to admit you’re weak in the face of nature. As long as you’re not weak-minded, too.