Planet Earth

Newsflash: Civilization Was Built on Llama Dung

DiscoblogBy Valerie RossMay 24, 2011 12:48 PM

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Far before the looming pyramids and the learned librarians at Alexandria, Egyptian civilization sprung up from the fertile banks of the Nile. Long predating the Inca empire and the sprawling structures of Macchu Picchu, Andean civilization emerged from a whole bunch of llama poop. For civilizations to take root, people need to have enough food on hand to put time and energy into activities like waging war, building stuff, and composing epic poetry. In the high and rugged Andes, growing that much maize---the staple crop of ancient South America---isn't easy. That's what llama droppings are for, a new study suggests. Digging through some deeply buried and really old dirt from a spot in the Andes two miles above sea level, paleoecologist Alex Chepstow-Lusty found two things: pollen and bugs. In particular, he found maize pollen from 2700 years ago---and, from the same period, a population explosion of little crap-eating critters called oribatid mites, which are known to make a meal of that which llamas leave behind. The local people were suddenly able to cultivate maize with such success, Chepstow-Lusty surmised, because they had growing herds of llamas, and therefore an abundance of llama dung with which to fertilize their crops. (As he explained to the Guardian, llamas "defecate communally so it is easily gathered." Thanks, guys.) Around that time, the archaeological record shows, a small Andean society that was a progenitor of the Incas began taking shape. In other words: Lots of llamas pooped. People slathered that poop on the fields as manure. Pretty soon, they were forming small chiefdoms like nobody's business. From scat came civilization. Those who feel modern society is headed down the tubes, it seems, may have things backward.

Image: Flickr / EVIL EMRE

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