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Step Agriculture: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore step agriculture and its benefits as an agricultural method in environments where normal agriculture is not possible. We also look at a couple of the more famous examples of step agriculture.

Adaptation

We see adaptations everywhere in the natural world: moths are colored differently to avoid being seen by predators, sharks can smell blood from miles away, and polar bears have developed a thick coat of fur to shield them from their arctic habitat.

Humans also adapt to their surroundings. Settled agriculture, for instance, is one of the foundations of modern society, and as humans have spread across the globe, they have adapted and found ways to till the soil in some of the most remote areas of the world. One technique, used throughout history and today for planting and harvesting in mountainous outposts is step agriculture.

Definition

Step agriculture, also known as terrace agriculture, is a system where steep hills or mountainsides are cut to form level areas of arable land. The areas of flat ground allow for the planting of crops that require large amounts of water and a level surface, since leveling the ground tends to prevent rainwater from running down the mountainside. The terraces are often built up and down hills, and appear to ascend or descend like steps (see photo below). Without such methods, sustained settlement in high elevation regions would not be possible.

Fields of a step agriculture system in modern Peru
Fields of a step agriculture system in modern Peru

History

Several civilizations throughout history pioneered the practice of step agriculture in various mountainous regions throughout the world, and one is even considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To better understand step agriculture, let's examine a couple of examples.

Inca Empire, Andes

The Inca built an empire based in the Andes Mountains in modern-day Peru prior to the sixteenth-century arrival of European colonists and the Spanish conquistadores. To feed that empire, the Incans developed a step agriculture system that carved the Andean mountainsides into chunks of level, arable land. On these steps, they grew the principal Andean staples: maize, potatoes, and native crops like yucca. Though the Incan Empire declined and was eventually conquered by Europeans, the agricultural system they pioneered persevered. Today, it is still used as a farming method in some areas of the Andes.

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