Environmental Adaptation of Ancient Incan Cities

The ancient Incan civilization first began developing settlements in coastal and highland regions of the Andes mountain range in Peru between 3000-1800 BC. The empire started and was centered in the capital city of Cuzco. Despite a lack of many modern advances such as the wheel, powerful draft animals, currency, or even an advanced written language, the Incas developed very advanced technologies and systems to adapt to their environments. An elaborate road system connected the distant mountain cities, and the aqueduct system in place greatly impressed the Spanish upon discovery. The advanced highway and hydraulic systems provided the framework for a successful empire.

Remains of a defensive wall at Cuzco. The capital was rebuilt upon the arrival of the Spanish.

The network of roads connecting the empire stretched across nearly 25,000 miles. The sophisticated roads were were constructed with very limited resources, and rope suspension bridges were built to impressively cross ravines.The impressive aqueduct system of the Incan empire functioned to irrigate agricultural terraces and bring fresh drinking water into the cities. The aqueducts, often build on the sides of mountains, collected water from the mountains for distribution elsewhere. The same aqueducts are still used extensively today. The stepped agricultural terraces created more space to grow crops than was available in the valleys. Additionally, the large surrounding mountains blocked sunlight from the valleys; the terraces insured more direct sunlight for more of the day. The terraces also allowed for better control of water for irrigation. The systems of irrigation protected against flooding and allowed the Incas to reliably produce long term food supplies at an extremely efficient rate. People around the world continue to visit the beautiful terraces at Machu Picchu. This site was built as a retreat for the Incan emperor. Tourists can see how the aqueducts transport water because the system is still functional today.

The Incan terrace agriculture system seen at popular tourist destination, Machu Picchu

The agricultural innovations of the Inca serve as a model for successful adaptation of cities to their environments and conditions. The Incas utilized their mountainous surrounding to maximize the efficiency of their agriculture and irrigation systems. These advances boosted agriculture not only for the Incan civilization, but the Sacred Valley of the Incas continues to be Peru’s most productive region. While complete sustainability may be nearly impossible to achieve, the Incas of Peru successfully adapted to their conditions in a lasting way that improved the success of their cities for generations to come. The study of their innovation and adaptation can be applicable to modern cities and for developing systems of sustainability in our modern society.



The Incas: History of the Andean Empire

The Incan Aqueducts- Irrigation Systems

The Inca Agricultural Terraces

The Inca Road System


Cuzco Fortress

Machu Picchu Terraces

For Additional Reading:

National Geographic Investigates: Ancient Inca, Archaeology Unlocks the Secret’s of Inca’s Past

Moray: First Agricultural Experiment Station?

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Why the Past is Who We Are

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots,” – Marcus Garvey. When we tell others about who we are, we tend to include where we came from, the dynamic of our family, and other things that have been important to us over our entire lifetime. We explain how our upbringing made us the people that we are today. Why is this so important to us? Why is this what makes us who we are? We do not tell people about our ambitions or dreams when asked about who we are. Instead, we talk about the past, because the past is what we identify with.

Mummified Native American body in an American museum.

Everything we do is rooted in the past. Language, religion, and customs have all been around for thousands of years, yet continue to have a deep meaning to billions of people in the world today. Archeology is fundamental in the process of relating these important concepts of the past to the people of today. An example of this process is repatriation. It is well known that ancestors are very meaningful in Native American culture. Respecting the body of a tribe member after their death is essential in both the fortune of the body’s spirit as well as the tribe itself. When Europeans destroyed Native American burial sites for hundreds of years, it had a serious impact on the Native American culture. Having their ancestors’ bodies rot in national museums with numbers scratched across their foreheads was an absolute atrocity to the Native American culture. The Repatriation Act brought these essentials of the past back to the Native American culture and helped current Native Americans better connect with the past and better understand who they really are. All people need items from the past to help them understand who they are today. 

ISIS destroying ancient artifact in Hatra, Iraq.

Without these connections to the past, we have no form of identity. Without identity, we have no meaning and no strength. This can be related to the destruction of significant national landmarks throughout the Middle East and Africa by ISIS. Each time the terror group destroys a national landmark, they are also destroying the strength of the group of people they are battling against. If the native people to those lands do not have any connection to the land itself, their culture begins to deteriorate, therefore separating the people as a group. People need landmarks and artifacts to have a connection to the past to make them who they are today.

The past does not restrain us to certain boundaries, but it does help give us a sense of understanding who we are and why we are that way. Each person should be given the right to connect to the past in their own way.


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice with 295 Illustrations. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015. Print.




Additional Reading:



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Treasures of the Past: Brought to you by the Public

The communication of ideas and beliefs has been a constant throughout the history of humankind.  Archaeology shows us that in the overlapping of the material cultures of humans in the ancient and recent past.  In most cases these exchanges between people provided new perspectives and insights that have allowed for growth and new discoveries.  However even though humanity has been communicating with each other for as long as anyone can remember, people can still have a hard time getting the message.

Metal Detectorists discover hundreds of thousands of artifacts every year

Archaeological results are often one of the many causalities, often not published well enough or made available to others who wish to read it, be it other archaeologists or the general public. This was a source of great frustration for Archaeologists concerning metal detectorists in England during the 1990’s.  A survey conducted in 1995 among the populace indicated that even though a large number of artifacts were being uncovered each year, only a small fraction of these finds were actually being reported to Museums.  There was also the unsettling problem of small groups of people using metal detectors to loot sites that had been scheduled for professional excavation.  This led to the passage of the Treasure Act in 1996 which set down new guidelines for what “finders of objects legally defined as treasure” were required to do with those objects.

Ancient coins are one of the most frequently found items when using metal detectors

Not a year later the Portable Antiquities Scheme was created, an initiative designed to help coordinate between amateur ‘finders’ and local Museums.  The program was originally piloted at only six locations through England and had minimal funding.  Each program was assigned a Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) who acted as a point of contact for these ‘finders’.  Metal detectorists could take their finds to the Liaison Officers; who would then record the object’s discovery, provide relevant information and history on the object and if not deemed a ‘Treasure’ would return this item to its finder.  FLO’s also served as educators to the finders as far as legislation regarding the search and discovery of artifacts to local archaeological issues.  These points of contact allowed for a channel of communication between the public and Archaeological community that gained further momentum with the establishment of a public online database in 1999.  This database designed as a place for people to document their discoveries as well as look for relevant information on potential artifacts.  The scope of accessibility was widened significantly and it drastically increased the amount of information Archaeologists had on the distribution of artifacts in England.

While a number of Archaeologists have raised concerns over site integrity and future vandalism, this kind of connection between the academic community and the public is imperative for developing continued interest in Archaeology.  The communication of ideas and knowledge must happen at every possible level, if only a select group of people are made aware of the impact of the past upon the present then anything we might gain from studying it will mean nothing.


Hunt, Alex. “BBC – History – Ancient History in depth: Archaeology and Metal Detecting.” BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.


“History.” British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.





Further Reading



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Destruction of Archaeological Sites in Palmyras

Conflict and warfare have always posed threats to buildings and sites that hold cultural significance. Examples range from the destruction of Tenochtitlán during the Spanish ‘conquest’ to current destruction of sites in the Middle East by the Islamic State. ISIS’s destruction of one site in particular, Palmyras in Syria, has recently made news. Palmyras was a city at the crossroads and major trading center between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

The Roman Theater’s intact facade in March 2016

Though records of the city go back for 3,800 years, the height of the city was under Roman occupation in the 3rd century A.D. Its mix of merchants from many cultures lead to Palmyras’ unique architecture and blend of Roman and Near Eastern styles (Romey). Palmyra was once of Syria’s most popular tourist location, until the outbreak of conflict in 2011 (Romey).

Satellite images showing the Roman theater (Dec. 26, 2016) before it was damaged

Satellite images of the Roman theater (Jan. 10 2017) after damage by ISIS militants

ISIS first captured Palmyra in May 2015, but were driven out by regime forces. They then retook the city on December 11, 2016 (Deeb). An ISIS leader announced in a radio broadcast on May 27, 2015 that the ruins in Palmyra would not be damaged (Almukhtar). However, as Syrian government forces moved closer to the city, the ISIS began to bulldoze and detonate structures such as the Roman Theater known as the Tetrapylon (2nd cen. AD), the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin. Before demolishing the theater they used it as a stage for executions and propaganda. 

In August 2015 they executed Khaled al-Asaad, the former director of the Palmyra museum, outside the museum next to the ruins (“Syrian archaeologist killed in Palmyra by IS militants”).

Khaled al-Asaad the archeologist who was killed by ISIS in 2015

al-Asaad was imprisoned for a month before his execution, during which time ISIS members interrogated him about the location of valuable artifacts. One of ISIS’s main sources of revenue is the sale of artifacts they have looted (Harkin). In addition to looting sites, it is clear that ISIS has been using the archaeological site as a literal stage to give them national attention and advertize their platforms.

The destruction of these sites has been called a “war crime” by the the UNESCO spokesperson (“Palmyra’s archaeological heritage under ISIS attack”). Palmyra was a crossroad of different cultures and religions, which is evident in the fusion of Roman, Greek, and Near Eastern architecture. It has a “spirit of… encounter and openness” (“Palmyra’s archaeological heritage under ISIS attack”). It is this spirit, which the historical site embodies, that makes it so anathematic to ISIS. By destroying the historical evidence of religious and cultural tolerance and killing people that share this knowledge like al-Asaad, ISIS hopes to destroy the future of tolerance in this area.

Work Cited:

Almukhtar, Sarah. “The Strategy Behind the Islamic State’s Destruction of Ancient Sites.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 July 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Deeb, Sarah El. “ISIS Destroys Part of Palmyra’s Roman Theatre.” The Archaeology News Network. The Associated Press, 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Harkin, James. “The Race to Save Syria’s Archaeological Treasures.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

“Palmyra’s Archaeological Heritage under ISIS Attack.” ARA News, 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Romey, Kristin. “Why Palmyra, Recently Liberated, Is a Historical Treasure.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

“Syrian Archaeologist ‘killed in Palmyra’ by IS Militants.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.


Further Reading:

Video showing more of Palmyra’s ruins before ISIS: https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000003870889/video-shows-palmyra-ruins-before-isis.html?action=click&contentCollection=world&module=embedded&region=caption&pgtype=article

More on the destruction of the Temple of Baal: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/01/world/middleeast/isis-militants-severely-damage-temple-of-baal-in-palmyra.html

More on the destruction of Palmyra: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/01/world/middleeast/isis-militants-severely-damage-temple-of-baal-in-palmyra.html

List and descriptions of other sites ISIS has damaged or destroyed: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150901-isis-destruction-looting-ancient-sites-iraq-syria-archaeology/

More on ISIS’ looting of antiquities to fuel the Iraq Insurgency: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140626-isis-insurgents-syria-iraq-looting-antiquities-archaeology/


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