We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Newsflash: Civilization Was Built on Llama Dung

By Valerie Ross
May 24, 2011 5:48 PMNov 19, 2019 9:42 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

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

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.