This blog of mine was originally posted over at Ancient Explorers.
In this article, we’ll explore 3 ancient civilizations, the Aztec civilization, the Babylonians, and the Chinese, that used aquaponics at the height of their power.
What Is Aquaponics?
Wikipedia’s definition: a food production system combining conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In aquaponics, water from an aquaculture system feeds a hydroponic system where the waste is broken down by bacteria into nitrates and nitrites and utilized by the plants as nutrients. The water then recirculates back to the aquaculture system.
TL;DR: Fish fertilize the water for the plants, plants filter the water for the fish. Beneficial bacteria ensure the whole cycle goes round. Want to learn more? Start Here
Three ancient civilizations that grew to their fullest potential with aquaponics are:
The Aztec Civilization of America:
Famed for their powerful warriors, the Aztecs reigned over Mesoamerica. Their urban center Tenochtitlan, modern day Mexico City, was described as a wonder to behold by the first Spaniards who set eyes upon it.
Picture in your mind’s eye a magnificent city rising up from the waters of Lake Texcoco. Long causeways lead to the mainland. A grid design with four quadrants radiating around the main religious and political center.
The population estimates of this wondrous floating city vary wildly from 200,000 to 1,000,000 people.
Miles of canals wove through the city and circled it. These canals were the secret to the mighty empire’s strength. They formed an ingenious form of agriculture, known as chinampas.
By alternating layers of lake mud and dead plant matter, canals were built up from the shallow lake floor. Nutrient rich water from the lake was lapped up by these absorbent man-made canals. The chinampas system was so efficient that it allowed for at least seven full crops a year.
The Aztecs were not the only American civilization to use the chinampas agriculture. Further south, in Bolivia, the Tiwanaku reigned for over 1000 years. Their power also derived from the aquaponic method of agriculture they used to deal with the high altitudes and steep terrain of the Andes.
These civilizations flourished by harnessing the natural strength of the river ecosystem and improving upon it in strategic and specific ways.
The chinampas themselves are seeing a resurgence.
Many local farmers are revitalizing their agricultural heritage through aquaponics with their ancient traditions.
Early Chinese Civilization:
Food is among the most basic human needs. Without food security, it’s impossible to build a complex empire. China knows: an empire of a million people requires a million people’s worth of rice, fish and other staples, and an empire of a billion… All this food must come from somewhere. Cue: the rice paddy.
The most stunning use of aquaponics throughout the ages is found in the rice paddies of China. Rice paddies are thought to have been in use since at least 11,000 B.C.E
That is a long time. Longer than recorded history in the West. Since that distant past, many civilizations have risen in China. The rice paddy played a fundamental role in feeding every single one of those civilizations.
The rice paddy, a staple of Chinese agriculture, is a wonderful example of aquaponics. Rice grows in water, ranging from a few inches up to 39 inches deep. Flooded paddies are terraced along steep mountains, in order to make use out of non-arable mountain land. Rain collects at the top and floods its way to the bottom. From there, evaporation raises the water to the top and it rains back down. Terraced paddies create microclimates much like the chinampas of America.
The secret to the rice paddy’s success is that these flooded waters are filled with all sorts of aquatic life. From eel to karp to Pekin and Mandarin ducks, many nutritious protein sources are grown right in the same space as the rice! The aquatic ecosystems provide more than enough fertilizer for the rice to grow in abundance, year after year.
The addition of water fowl adds a new level to the aquaponics environment. The ducks feed on bugs and young fish. The fish consume the duck waste and convert it into useful nutrition for the rice. Meanwhile, the Chinese farmer collects duck, fish, and rice all in one glorious harvest!
Let’s look at the Chinese diet. It is extremely high in rice, fish and even duck! For 13,000 years, aquaponics provided abundant food to the most populous nation on the planet.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon:
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote to us about the Seven Wonders of the World in his time (~450 B.C.E.) None of his writings on the subject still exist, we know about them through other authors.
One marvels at the descriptions of the Garden. Tales of its beauty echo throughout time. They say the Gardens are built upon cement walls 20 feet thick, with an incredible depth of soil on top. The soil is so deep that trees root there, creating a forest. Fountains, streams and ponds litter the Garden’s terraces, fed by gigantic cisterns (water basins) deep inside the mountainous core of the Garden.
The Gardens are attributed to Nebuchadnezzar II for his Queen Amytis, homesick for her homeland of Medea. To appease his queen, Nebuchadnezzar built an enormous tiered structure and grew all manner of plants upon it. They say that river water was brought to the site by aqueducts and stored in cisterns. Fish living in these cavernous cisterns provided the fertilization. Water was fed up to the highest points of the gardens through an ingenious method of water screws (See: Archimedes’ Screw), which turned, carrying large swaths of water higher and higher. Water filtered down like in the rice paddies of China and the chinampas of the Americas.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are literally a World Wonder. Very few structures that can boast that description.
Aquaponics is the secret technology that puts the wonder in this World Wonder, the power in the Aztec, and abundance in ancient China.