The Atacama Desert is among the driest places on Earth, yet ancient agricultural systems are present in the region. Here, we present a study of terraced agricultural soils in the high-altitude eastern margin of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, mainly dating to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. 950–1400 AD) and Inka period (ca. 1400–1536 AD). Terraced fields were compartmentalized to distribute limited irrigation water originating mainly from springs. Natural soils used for agriculture are mostly Aridisols developed on Pleistocene alluvial fan terraces and hillslopes underlain by volcanic bedrock. One research objective is to evaluate long-term soil change from agriculture. In this hyperarid climate, agriculture is only possible with irrigation, so natural soils on the same geomorphic surface adjacent to irrigated soils provide baseline data for assessing anthropogenic soil change. Data from soil profiles and surface transects indicate intentional soil change through terracing, removal of soil rock fragments, and probable fertilization. Agricultural soils have anthropogenic horizons ranging from 16 to 54 cm thick. Most agricultural soils have higher phosphorus levels, suggesting enrichment from fertilization. Changes in soil organic carbon and nitrogen are also evident. Unintentional anthropogenic soil change resulted from CaCO3 input through irrigation with calcareous spring water. Initial studies suggest that agriculture here was sustainable in the sense of conserving soils, and maintaining and possibly improving soil productivity over centuries.
“Soils in ancient irrigated agricultural terraces in the Atacama Desert, Chile”