This week in our Soil and Water class we have been reading about how ancient civilizations used or misused their soil in order to survive. In my search for a topic to blog about I came across an article in National Geographic, Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible? (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/11/081119-lost-cities-amazon.html). This article is mainly about past Amazonian civilizations enriching their soil in order to produce better crop yield from their naturally acidic soil. While the article uses the taboo word “dirt” in its title, the actual contents is quite interesting.
For a long time many scientists believed that the ability for people to survive on the Amazon river basin was impossible, that the soil was too acidic to be used to grow crops. Now researchers believe that these mythical people may have existed, and survived with the help of a man-made soil. A soil called terra preta, dark earth, was discovered due to its contrast with the locations more yellow looking soil. Research in the 1980’s found that the soil was made up of charcoal from slow burning trees. This charcoal, called biochar, allows the soil to hold in nutrients for hundreds of years.
Scientists are working to recreate this soil in hopes that it could feed the hungry, and help stop global warming. This magic soil could help other locations of the world with acidic soil to increase their agriculture. The soil can also help combat global warming. Specialized power plants can burn agricultural waste to create electricity. The carbon that would usually be released into the atmosphere would then be locked into the biochar. This biochar can then be placed under the ground and, because it allows the soil to stay fertile for hundreds of years, there is no need to create new farmland when soil loses its nutrients. If Amazonian farmers turn to a slash-and-char method instead of continuing with their slash-and-burn traditions, they could cut their carbon emissions in half.
The complete makeup of Terra preta is still unkown, scientists know that it contains pottery, fish bones, and charcoal. The question is will the soil ever be able to be recreated?
If this soil can be replicated then the world will be better off. It would not only help those countries with high starvation rates, but it would also help family farms in the United States to be able to make a better living. Family farms are better for the environment, because they have an invested interest in their land. This new soil could open up a world of possibilities, but not only does it help the future, it also can unlock the secrets of past civilizations. Some people are hoping to find out if other great civilizations, such as the Mayans, may have used this soil to survive. Even though many believe the Mayans brought along their own demise due to their mistreatment of the soil. If I was a scientist, I would be annoyed that an ancient civilization could make this soil, but even with all of our new technology we have yet to make a break through. Hopefully scientists will eventually be able to recreate this soil and help save the planet.