Words by: Spencer Curry
In this article, we’ll explore 3 ancient civilizations that used aquaponics at the height of their power.
Now first, what is aquaponics?
The definition of aquaponics from Wikipedia is: a food production system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In normal aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by nitrogen-fixing bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients. The water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.
These ancient civilizations proved the efficacy of aquaponics and are some of the most powerful civilizations and most beautiful wonders of the world. The three ancient civilizations that grew to their fullest potential with aquaponics are as follows:
The Aztecs of America:
The Aztec people, famed for their powerful warriors, reigned over all of Mesoamerica. Their political power came from a triple alliance, based around the urban center of Tenochtitlan, modern day Mexico City. Tenochtitlan was described as a wonder to behold by the first Spaniards who set eyes upon it.
Picture in your mind’s eye a magnificent city rising up from the waters of Lake Texcoco. Long causeways connect it to the mainland. A grid based city design with four quadrants radiating around the main religious and political center.
The population of this wondrous floating city estimates vary wildly from 200,000 to nearly 1,000,000 people.
Miles of canals wove through the city and many more circled around the city proper. These canals were one of the secrets to the mighty Aztec empire’s strength. The canals were actually an ingenious form of agriculture, now known as chinampas.
Built by alternating layers of lake mud and dead plant matter, these canals were built up from the shallow lake floor. The nutrient rich water from the lake were lapped up by these absorbent man-made canals. The chinampas system was so efficient that it allowed for at least seven full crops a year.
In fact, the chinampas style of agriculture itself is seeing a resurgence. It appears that the Aztecs were not the only American civilization to use the chinampas style agriculture. Further south, in Bolivia, the ancient Tiwanaku reigned for over 1000 years. The essence of their power was derived from the flooded-raised-fields method of agriculture that they used to deal with the high altitudes and steep terrain of the Andes.
Many modern farmers are even revitalizing their agricultural heritage through aquaponics from the ancient traditions since they are inspiring. And why not integrate natural laws and human ingenuity?
These civilizations flourished by harnessing the natural strength of the river ecosystem and improving upon it in strategic and specific ways such learning from nature, the tradition of biomimicry.
Early Chinese Civilization:
Food is among the most basic human needs. Without food security, it is nearly impossible to build something as complicated as a massive empire. As China well knows, an empire of a million people requires a million people’s worth of rice, fish and other staples, and an empire of a billion people requires a billion people’s worth of rice, fish and other staples. All this food must come from somewhere. Cue: the rice paddy.
Perhaps the most stunning use of aquaponics throughout the ages is found originally in the rice paddies of China. Rice paddies are thought to have been in use since at least 11,000 B.C.E That is a long, long time. Longer than recorded history in the West, in fact. Since that time long ago, many important civilizations have risen in the land of China. The rice paddy played a fundamental role in feeding every single one of those civilizations.
As it turns out the rice paddy, a staple of Chinese agriculture, is a wonderful example of aquaponics. Rice is the grain of a grass that grows in water, ranging from a few inches up to 39 inches deep (See: deep water rice paddies). Usually these flooded paddies are terraced along steep mountains, in order to make use out of otherwise non-arable mountain land. Rain collects at the top and slowly floods its way to the bottom. From their, evaporation raises the water to the top and drops it back down again as rain. Terraced paddies create microclimates much like the chinampas of America.
The secret sauce to the rice paddy’s success is that these flooded waters are filled with all sorts of aquatic life. From eel to karp to Pekin and Mandarin ducks, many nutritious protein sources are grown right in the same space as the rice! The aquatic ecosystems provide more than enough fertilizer for the rice to grow in abundance, year after year.
If that were not enough, the addition of water fowl like the Peking Duck added a whole new level to the aquaponics environment. The ducks feed on bugs and young fish, their waste providing the fish with a tasty snack! The fish process the duck waste and in turn convert it into useful nutrition for the rice. Meanwhile, the Chinese farmer comes along, collects ducks, fish and rice all in one glorious harvest!
With this in mind, it is interesting to look at the Chinese diet. To this day, it is extremely high in rice, fish and even duck! For 13,000 years, aquaponics has provided abundant food to what is now the most populous nation on the planet. Hello! Perhaps we can learn a thing or two here and use aquaponics to provide abundant food for the rest of the world too!
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon:
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote to us about the Seven Wonders of the World in his time (~450 B.C.E.) Although none of his writings on the subject still exist, we know about them through references from other authors. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is the only wonder of the Seven without a “known” point of existence.
One can marvel at the descriptions of the Garden itself. The tales of its beauty and wonder echo throughout time, from many reputable sources like Herodotus. It is said that the Gardens are built upon cement walls 20 feet thick, with an incredible depth of soil on top. The soil is so deep that trees are freely able to root their, creating a forest like atmosphere. Fountains, streams and ponds litter the Garden’s many levels and terraces, fed by gigantic cisterns (water basins) deep inside the mountain-like core of the Garden’s central tower.
The Gardens are classically attributed to Nebuchadnezzar II for his Queen Amytis, who was homesick for her mountainous land of Medea. To appease his new queen, Nebuchadnezzar built an enormous tiered structure and grew all manner of plants upon it, giving it the appearance of an actual mountain range. The method of action is described alongside the garden itself. Overall, they say that river water was brought to the site by aqueducts. From here it was stored in cisterns, large cavernous bowls of water that would hold water for use. Fish living in these massive cisterns provided more than adequate fertilization. Water was fed up to the highest points of the gardens through an ingenious method of water screws (See: Archimedes’ Screw). Large screws turned, carrying large swaths of water higher and higher. The water would filter down from the top just like in the tiered rice paddies of China and the tiered flood and trenches of the Americas.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are literally known as a Wonder of the World. There are very few man-made structures that can boast that description.
Aquaponics is the secret technology that puts the wonder in this Wonder of the World and the powerful times of the Aztec and abundance of ancient China.
Spencer Curry is a dedicated Aquapioneer, bringing the ancient art of Aquaponics to the world. His interest in ancient cultures and their advanced technology led him to Aquaponics many years ago. For more info visit: http://freshfarmct.org