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chapter 20 Cultivating Biodiversity: Milpas, Gardens, and the Classic Period Landscape Payson Sheets and Michelle Woodward Introduction Cerén inhabitants developed intensive methods of permanent agriculture to maximize their production of food. At Cerén, maize (Zea mays) clearly was the principal crop, followed by beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and malanga (Xanthosoma violaceum), squash (Cucurbita sp.), guayabas (Posoqueria latifolia ), nance (Brysonima crassifolia), manioc (Manihot esculenta), cacao (Theobroma cacao), chiles (Capsicum annuum), and others. The use of ridges in fields and kitchen gardens and the cultivation of diverse plant species in zones are components of the intensive agriculture found at Cerén. In addition, there are strong correspondences between the plants growing near households and the foods stored in ceramic vessels in the households (Lentz et al. 1996). Household 4 is a good example, as a young cacao tree was growing in the garden and cacao beans were stored in a vessel in the storeroom nearby. The inhabitants of Cerén were growing and storing a variety of edible plants. Furthermore, these plants grew in specific, circumscribed areas, which we describe as zoned biodiversity .1 Figure 20.1 illustrates the agricultural zones identified at Cerén. The estimates for crop yields for Cerén indicate very high productivity per unit area. We estimate that in a good year the household could produce all the food it needed from its contiguous territory. But in an average or poor year, it would need production from outfields, presumably outside of the village, where slash-and-burn may have been used. Zier (1992) and Sheets (1982, 1992a) summarize earlier understandings of agriculture at Cerén. Permanent Agriculture at Cerén Archaeological evidence at Cerén indicates the inhabitants practiced intensive, permanent diversi- fied agriculture to sustain their families. According to Netting (1993: 28), permanent agriculture generally involves several characteristics, including the presence of a diverse array of plant species, the moving and manipulating of soil to foster growth and to control erosion, the regulation of water, and the maintenance of soil fertility. Not only is field ridging present at Cerén, but also the archaeological record provides evidence for the rarity of agricultural fields lying fallow.2 The rarity of milpas (maize fields) lying fallow indicates the high intensity of agriculture at Cerén. Of the eight milpas excavated, only one appears to have been fallow. Collectively, this evidence supports the practice of permanent infield agriculture at Cerén. Present-day traditional agriculturists in Central America continue to use these techniques to maintain permanent agricultural fields. Milpas Milpas are one form of permanent agriculture found at Cerén. The milpas at Cerén are most similar to the ‘‘high-performance milpas’’ located throughout Mexico and Central America today and described by Wilken (1971: 442).The maize of a milpa is generally interplanted midway through the growing season with beans and often squash. Planting often is done on the tops of low ridges spaced 60–80 cm apart to facilitate the infiltration of rainwater and to avoid compaction of soil around the roots. HighTseng 2002.3.21 12:14 6272 Sheets / BEFORE THE VOLCANO ERUPTED / sheet 196 of 238 cultivating biodiversity 185 figure 20.1. Agricultural zones at Cerén. performance milpas are characterized by high productivity per unit area, high labor investment, and few or no fallow periods. Milpas were caught by the volcanic ash in different phases of the crop cycle in eight different localities at Cerén, with the most common phase being maturation of the first planting. The other crop phases included juvenile second plantings and a milpa lying fallow. One milpa had been harvested just before the eruption, and it is unknown if it was to be replanted (Test Pit 17, Gerstle 1992c). Another milpa, planted in a previous year but not in the year of the eruption, indicates the presence of a true annual (short) fallow (Zier 1983). At two other field locations, the first crop had been harvested and replaced by the second planting. One of the replantings was done with multiple seeds per locality, while the other was more dispersed, with a single plant growing in each locality. Three milpas still had the mature plants of the first planting in the field at the time of the eruption , and in one of them the plants were doubled over to dry in the field. This practice is still common in Middle American traditional agriculture. Yet another locality had young but tall maize plants with...


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