Chinampas – Aztec floating gardens
Chinampas are artificial islands built by the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. These Aztec floating gardens were constructed on freshwater lakes, including Lake Texcoco, and were used for agricultural purposes.
The word “chinampa” comes from the Nahuatl word “chināmitl” (“square made of canes”) and the Nahuatl locative, “pan”. Spaniards used the word “camellones” (“ridges between the rows”) to describe chinampas.
Chinampas were commonly used in pre-colonial Mexico and Central America.
There is evidence that the Nahua settlement of Culhuacan, on the south side of the Ixtapalapa peninsula that divided Lake Texcoco from Lake Xochimilco, constructed the first chinampas in C.E. 1100.
These gardens were also called floating islands because of the illusion they created.
The Aztecs did not invent chinampas but rather were the first to develop them for large-scale cultivation. They utilized the fertile soil from the lakebeds to create chinampas, enabling them to grow crops such as maize, beans, and squash.
Chinampas were created by interweaving reeds with stakes beneath the lake’s surface, creating underwater fences. A buildup of soil and aquatic vegetation would be piled into these “fences” until the top layer of soil was visible on the water’s surface.
When creating chinampas, in addition to building up masses of land, a drainage system was developed. This drainage system was multi-purposed. A ditch was created to allow for the flow of water and sediments.
Over time, the ditch would slowly culminate in piles of mud, which would then be carefully dug up and strategically placed on top of the chinampas, effectively clearing the blockage.
The soil from the bottom of the lake was also rich in nutrients, thus acting as an efficient and effective way of fertilizing the chinampas. Replenishing the topsoil with lost nutrients provided for bountiful harvests.
The earliest securely dated chinampas, ranging from 1150 CE to 1350 CE, were utilized in the Valley of Mexico, specifically on Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco near the springs along the south shore.
The Aztecs, seeking control over these regions, conducted military campaigns. Some researchers argue for significant state-led efforts to expand the chinampas, known as the hydraulic hypothesis, linked to a hydraulic empire maintaining power through water regulation.
Evidence supports state involvement, considering the manpower and materials required for chinampa construction. However, debates on state control assume dikes were crucial, yet functional chinampas existed before protective dikes.
Implications suggest the dike aimed to enhance the chinampa operation. These farms surrounded Tenochtitlán, the enlarged Aztec capital, with smaller-scale ones near Xaltocan and Lake Texcoco’s east side.
Spanish conquest led to abandoned fields, but lakeshore towns maintained chinampas.
Chinampas in Tenochtitlan
Tenochtitlan faced problems due to constant expansion and limited space. Chinampas were a source of fresh food in Tenochtitlan. The chinampas grew corn, beans, pumpkins, amaranth, tomatoes, chili peppers, and flowers.
To sustain the growing empire, conquering new lands or expanding the chinampa system became necessary. Chinampas played a crucial role in supplying food, evident in tribute records showing farmers’ relatively light tribute compared to others.
In Tenochtitlan, the chinampas ranged from 90×5 m to 90×10 m. Chinampas were separated by channels wide enough for a canoe to pass. These raised, well-watered beds had very high crop yields with up to 7 harvests a year.
Chinampas were created by staking out the shallow lake bed and then fencing in the rectangle with wattle. The fenced-off area was then layered with mud, lake sediment, and decaying vegetation, eventually bringing it above the level of the lake.
Often trees were planted at the corners to secure the chinampa. In some places, the long raised beds had ditches in between them, giving plants continuous access to water and making crops grown there independent of rainfall.
Chinampas in our days
Remnants of this system still exist in Xochimilco, which is considered a model of modern sustainable agriculture. While many farmers are happy to return to their agricultural roots, they face a number of challenges.
During the Spanish conquest, many lakes were drained. Unfortunately, this has limited the agricultural potential of lakes like Xochimilco. Additionally, an earthquake occurred in 1985, further damaging several canals.
Other problems include limited water supply, the widespread use of pesticides, the impact of climate change, urban sprawl, and water pollution problems associated with untreated sewage and toxic waste.
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