Terra Preta – The Miracle Soil of the Amazon


For a short time, I’ve been invloved in a discussion about something that most of us have never heard of – TERRA PRETA.

A brief background: In 2006 Charles Mann wrote a book 1491: Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.  I read it back in early 2007, and some of the things in it have stuck with me ever since.  It is a TERRIFIC book.

One of the amazing things I learned was about terra preta – a dark soil in the Amazon that Mann said was a miracle soil.  We all are told over and over again that Amazonian soil is TERRIBLE.  Well, all of it isn’t.  Some of it may be the best soil ever.  Used in agriculture, terra preta lasts indefinitely WITHOUT FERTILIZERS.

Terra preta is a mix of soil, charcoal, and ceramic shards put there by people. It also includes fish bones.  Terra preta averages 40-50 cms deep but in some places it is up to 2 meters deep.  Why, no one knows, because you don’t need half a meter or two meters to grow food.  You normally  only need about 25 cms or less usually.  That is about 10″ of topsoil.

Terra preta was first recognized about 100 years ago, but only in the last 20 years or so has anyone studied it.  And what they have found is amazing.

Terra Preta

Terra preta, with its ceramic shards. [Source: NatGeo’s video “Superdirt Made Amazon Cities Possible?”]

First of all, terra preta IS NOT NATURAL.  It is clearly and obviously man-made.  This is known because the ceramic shards are present everywhere terra preta exist – a total area along rivers a little larger than the size of the state of Illinois – but in narrow areas near rivers.

Map of the Amazon's Terra Preta Areas

Map Showing Where Terra Preta is Currently known to be Found [Source: Clement et al 2015 “The domestication of Amazonia before European conquest”]

Even when the very dark terra preta soil is 2 meters deep, the ceramic is in it down to the bottom.  The soil is so dark and numus rich that scientists have given it the artificial name of “Amazonian dark earth”, or ADE.  The name ADE is bullshit, because it is terra preta, and has had that name for a very long time.

Okay, that is the basics.

The Scientists MAYBE ARE GETTING IT Wrong

I found quite a number of articles and academic papers on terra preta.  One had this to say:

“The persistence of the fertility of these soils is a consequence of their high organic matter content, which in turn is related to the existence of pyrogenic charcoal in the soil.”

What’s wrong with this?

The scientists have yet to figure out HOW terra preta was made. They’ve tried to duplicate it, and they CAN’T. At least so far.

But why should it be so difficult? Haven’t the scientists determined that the terra preta is basically just “biochar” – charcoal in a soil?

Well, that is the conclusion that they jumped to right away, and that is why they are failing, trying to replicate it. BUT IT IS CLEARLY NOT JUST THE CHARCOAL.

If it was charcoal and only the charcoal mixed in, OTHER farming societies would have created terra preta long, long ago – all over the world.  After all, all in the 12,000 years since Göbekli Tepe, the earliest human site with architecture, people have cooked with wood and someone would have found out if charcoal in the soil makes a soil that never wears out and always is capable of raising crops.  But none of them DID. One of the truly amazing things about this new soil is that charcoal should have been a PRIME ingredient in soil treatments since forever – BUT IT WASN’T.

The Carbon Cycle in All of This

Plants are hydrocarbons. According to the carbon cycle, plants take carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into cellulose via photosynthesis. That always seemed an odd cycle to me, because dead, rotted plant matter has a lot of carbon in it. And because slash-and-burn techniques all put carbon ash into the soil – which helps the plant growth considerably. (You know, the slash-and-burn that greens claim is burning up the Amazon, and we’ve got to save it from them!) If you’ve ever seen a burned field two months after its been burned you know what I am talking about. The carbon from plants – whether burned or not – always has been part of the diet of plants.

According to the Carbon Cycle, the carbon from plants does NOT go straight into new plants but is instead eaten by animal organisms in the ground and then exhaled by them into the air for the new plants to inhale. I am sure that this happens, but I am also sure that the plants UPTAKE carbon directly, through their roots.

OTHERWISE HOW WOULD THE CARBON IN TERRA PRETA HELP PLANTS GROW?

It was good that the Carbon Cycle was identified in terms of understanding that CO2 in the air HELPS plants grow and photosynthesis to happen. I think it was a premature conclusions that that was the ONLY way plants get carbon.  Terra preta may or may not show that that is not the case.

Yes, I could be wrong. I don’t think so. But let’s think on this a moment… Maybe I AM wrong. Let’s see…

A silly hypothesis:

But let’s use the Carbon Cycle and apply it to the terra preta. If soil organisms digest the carbon of dead plants before they exhale it, then adding carbon to the soil should FEED those organisms and create a population boom in those organisms. Locally that, in turn, should increase the total amount of CO2 exhaled, shouldn’t it?

And since the CO2 is released to the atmosphere right where the plants are, at ground level, this makes an efficient delivery system for CO2 for the photosynthesis – deliver it right where it is consumed.

What IS It That Make Terra Preta So Effective for Thousands of Years?

Taking that thought one step further, this might explain WHY the terra preta has such long term stability. The carbon of dying plants into the soil is perhaps the basic input for the whole cycle – to “top off” the amount of carbon in the terra preta. The soil organisms consume that plant matter, but also the charcoal. When rainfall drops and fewer plants grow, the carbon in the charcoal is still there to feed the soil organisms, so they maintain their health and population. This is positing that the charcoal is a RESERVE for lean years/lean seasons.

This might even explain why the ceramic is included. The ceramic just might be a home for the organisms, the right environment for them. The ceramic, then, is SORT OF like a catalyst. Not a chemical catalyst, but an environmental catalyst.

I am seriously wondering if the creators of terra preta had to SEED the ceramic shards somehow, in order to have a “starter culture” of the soil organisms. Kind of like a starter culture for yogurt. I am not joking. A starter culture in the ceramics might explain why the scientists cannot replicate terra preta – they don’t see WHY the ceramic is there – and they don’t seem to have asked. They’ve just seen the carbon and gone all hog wild about <b>carbon in the soil!</B> – even making some and expecting (without the ceramic and starter cultures) it to do the trick. This from biologists who for centuries never considered carbon as a soil treatment and now having a new miracle ingredient – except the miracle ingredient isn’t the same thing.

Thoughts keep coming:

All of this terra preta had to have begun somewhere, with one person or one village. WHAT would have happened to draw their attention to doing it that way? Obviously, someone had an area with ceramic shards and charcoal in the soil and it went well for them. They would have seen the results and realized they had a good thing. That is well and good for that person or village. How did it get spread out all over the Amazon fluvial areas (areas by the banks of the rivers)? Well, as we are finding out, simply adding ceramics and charcoal don’t do it. There must be a missing ingredient, or a missing combination, and SOMEONE early on realized what that ingredient/combination WAS.  After all, in their same village others would have had charcoal in the soil under their plants – but only one person’s soil never needed work done to help it grow plants well.

And I also think whoever discovered it made it into a business, a trade – creating and shipping terra preta, up and down the rivers. NOT the entire soil necessarily – perhaps just the “seeded” ceramics. People everywhere could provide their own soil and their own charcoal.

The video talked about fishbones being in the terra preta, too. Perhaps the source of the microbes/organisms?  Certainly good in itself for the soil.  But fish bones are used elsewhere and don’t make the soil good forever.

WHY so deep? Agriculture that I have seen and gardens, too, only have soil a few inches deep. But terra preta averages 40-50 cms – about 16-20″ – and up to 2000 cms (80″). Perhaps that has to do with the organisms and their preferred environment.

I have not come to this all of a sudden. I’ve put some thought into it ever since I read Mann’s book <i>1491</i>. I come back to it, wondering WTF is everybody missing? I was expecting science to jump in and solve this within MONTHS. It’s now 9 years since the book – and about 100 years since terra preta was first recognized – and still no terra preta factories. They’ve totally gone off in the wrong direction and are down a blind alley. The terra preta is not in that direction – of biochar. Putting charcoal in with soil and calling it biochar isn’t going to work. If it was going to work like terra preta, we’d have already heard about it. We haven’t. So it hasn’t.

A Perspective on Reverse Engineering What Others Have Done

In my work as a mechanical designer and engineer, once in a while I was asked to reverse engineering someone else’s mechanism or a tool. Reverse engineering looks simple, but it isn’t. Looking at individual parts and measuring them, it seems easy – just draw them up and slap them together, and VOILA! It doesn’t work that way. Little things that don’t seem important actually turn out to be VERY important. TOLERANCES matter especially. Determining where tolerances need to be tight means getting into the head of the previous designers of the mechanisms. NO TWO designers think alike. If I stayed with only my own thinking, I’d have failed. Item by item, I had to understand WHY a part was shaped as it is, the size it is, and made from the material it was made from. And I had to understand what MADE the item that shape – what IN the design concept required THAT shape <b>and no other</b>?

If I’d have taken 9-plus years to reverse engineer those tools and mechanisms, I’d have been fired long before that.

Why I Think the Scientists are Missing the Boat

With terra preta taking AT LEAST 9 years to figure out – without a solution – it is obvious that they have not gotten into the heads of the people of the Amazon <b>of the past</b>. With 95-97% of the population of the past dead 500 years ago, the survivors evidently were not the ones who knew how to make terra preta. If anyone did know how, then such a great “product” would be still part of the present society. The hunter-gatherers found in the Amazon may be the descendants of the 3-5% who survived, but they sure as HELL wouldn’t be hunter-gatherers if the first generations (after the Spaniards’ diseases had killed off the rest) had retained the knowledge of how to farm with terra preta.

These so-called “aboriginals” may ACT like aboriginals, but they may be just people scavenging off the land like we all would be if civilization came down around our heads. (Those who can survive, anyway.)  The first Spaniard down the Amazon was Gaspar de Carvajal talked of many towns and villages, wall to wall down great stretches of the Amazon, but years later when others went, there were none, and so for 500 years Carvajal has been thought of as a liar.  recent discoveries are making people reconsider.  Satellites are helping discover that, yes, there WERE settlements all over the Amazon basin.

The arkies perhaps have misread the peoples, because the terra preta was too subtle for their times. Now arkies are discovering all sorts of settlements all OVER the Amazon basin, indicating a much higher level of society than was obvious for the first 500 years of us arriving in the area.

The discovery of terra preta is a REALLY important development.  It may VERY likely revolutionize agriculture  in the tropics, and perhaps in the entire world. But they have to figure out how to MAKE it first.

Damn, I wish I had a well-stocked laboratory. I’d like to test that idea about a  starter culture in the ceramics.

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33 responses to “Terra Preta – The Miracle Soil of the Amazon

  1. I love this post. I believe we need to develop more intensive agricultural techniques but ones that consume less resources and operate more effectively through natural means.
    I think you are on to something with the microorganisms. A couple of questions and comments.
    Regarding slash and burn that greenies say we need to stop. There are really two varieties of slash and burn.
    One is a natural and ecologically sound sort practiced by Amazonian tribes and other indigenous peoples over many tropical parts of the world. This involves cutting the forest, setting the toppled trees on fire, then planting a crop. Fertility in the plot lasts typically two years or so then the tribe picks up and moves to repeat the process somewhere. This lets the plot restore itself and in seven or eight years the tribe can return to plot and repeat. As long as there is enough forest in their territory, they can do this indefinitely and sustainably.
    The second sort is the one the greenies want to stop. This involves landowners or would-be landowners cutting down large sections of forest, burning the refuse, and planting a crop. A year or two later they plant grass and turn the land into a pasture. Many years ago in Costa Rica I sat on the porch of home in the evening and watched the embers glowing from just this sort of thing on the opposite hillside that was so steep you would almost need a rope to climb it. At the end of this, we have only the marginal productivity of a livestock operation on fairly poor soil and we have lost a huge amount of forest that will not come back unless the farm is abandoned (which some were in the economic downturn of 2007-8.
    But back to terra preta. One thing I am not clear about is whether these sites are forested when initially found? Also, have any of them been actively farmed for many years after becoming un-forested? In other words, do they continue to be fertile after many years of farming? Maybe you know the answer since you have been reading a lot about it.
    You may see where I am going. If these sites are remnants of pre-Columbian agriculture (which I think you suggest and I believe), then if sites/mounds had the ability to just keep most of the organic matter that would naturally accumulate since those civilizations vanished, we would not be surprised to find large accumulations of black, rich earth. The test would be whether they continue to produce and accumulate the rich soil if they are uncovered and used for agriculture. Certainly a couple of feet of soil would last a while but does three feet become two then one then none unless there is some new input.
    I think it is pretty clear that civilizations there did have some techniques to maximize fertility in the rain forest environment. They certainly used the usual stuff we would expect – manure, charcoal, bones (natural fertilizers used by organic farmers today). The use of shards (or “sherds” as Wikipedia seems to make a big point about) is the odd one. I would speculate that the shards are there to provide structural support in the soil and to limit the washout of the fertile nutrients during heavy rainfall. It is exactly this washout of the nutrients that makes indigenous slash and burn unable to go more than a year or two without diminishing yields.
    I could imagine an intensive agricultural system that used organic techniques well-understood by us, provided a structural layer to limit runoff of nutrients, and continually replaced the organic matter that would come from a forest living on top of it by taking the refuse and waste from the surrounding forests and applying it to terra preta mounds. With the large populations that probably existed at that time, there would be plenty of labor. The agricultural economics of this would be much like that of wetland rice farming in Asia which also was able to sustain high populations. More labor input produces higher yields which produces more people to do more labor. A feedback loop. Once the populations were decimated by disease the system collapsed. The forests rapidly retook the terra preta mounds and the shard support system allowed the black soil to accumulate for hundreds of years.

  2. James –

    Point by point, as best I can:

    One thing I am not clear about is whether these sites are forested when initially found?

    I don’t know everything about this. I’d left it, waiting for it to catch my eye again, as I often do with new stuff. You have to give people time to get into it and light a fire under themselves. I can’t do it myself, but I can try to keep up and keep an eye out. I will try to be clear about when it it me speculating/reasoning.

    As to this point, I am finding out that people are mapping these locations individually in GIS, the mapping/data software. That is exactly the right thing to do, from one perspective – data management. One article/paper I read said that the locations are rarely over 2 acres, so that to me says the mapping will be VERY important to understand it all. Otherwise it will all be too disjointed. This kind of thing is something a certain type of scientists does very well – cranking out data at the smallest resolution imaginable. (I kind of think of them as the butterfly collectors of science.)

    My understanding right now is that the sites are “all over the map” – no pun intended. I.e., they are found in all states of use and un-use. Some are on high ground above rivers; some are on low ground. Some are remote; some not so much.

    …do they continue to be fertile after many years of farming?

    From what I have seen, YES, they continue to be fertile after many years of farming. That is exactly the point of it, why it is getting so much attention.

    “If these sites are remnants of pre-Columbian agriculture (which I think you suggest and I believe), then if sites/mounds had the ability to just keep most of the organic matter that would naturally accumulate since those civilizations vanished, we would not be surprised to find large accumulations of black, rich earth.”

    Actually, NO. The default soil in the Amazon – found even close to the terra preta sites – is a pale yellowish soil that is poor in nutrients and humus. Since it is so clearly DIFFERENT in the entire region from this yellow soil, the terra preta kind of sticks out like a sore thumb.

    Certainly a couple of feet of soil would last a while but does three feet become two then one then none unless there is some new input.

    This diminishing does not seem to be the case. The ceramics and dark soil average 40-50 cm and up to 200 cm deep – in locations where nothing was done at all. (I THINK I put it down as up to 2000 cm before; if so that was wrong.)

    As to new input, THAT was one of my points – that it seems as if ANY dying plant matter above is enough to top off the carbon that might have been used up by each season’s new plants. But this is just my take on it. And maybe what I see as a bit excessive depth is just that – a reservoir of carbon to take up the slack when new plant matter isn’t cooperating, due to drought or whatever. With the “too deep” reservoir plus new plant matter, that is two ways of keeping up – and for replenishing carbon in very good years. All of this is NOT in the articles/papers – just my thinking on it.

    It is exactly this washout of the nutrients that makes indigenous slash and burn unable to go more than a year or two without diminishing yields.

    That is what makes terra preta stand out – that in this vast region of easily washed out nutrients, here a type of MAN-MADE and MANAGED soil that does the opposite – it is incredibly stable in both pH and in nutrients. AND OBVIOUS, by the color difference. In the Carbon Cycle, the organisms are the ones that CONVERT the dead pant matter into nutrients for the plants; without that conversion step, the plant matter is not actually plant nutrients, even though it is organic matter.

    So, what is found in the terra preta seems to be post-conversion nutrients, not merely dead plant matter. That is one reason that I thought of the ceramics perhaps being host/home to the organisms. To me, it is like putting 2 and 2 and getting 4 – but such reasoning doesn’t always hold true. Still, though, I think that kind of reasoning points usually in the right direction.

    Shards – Yes, it is likely that the shards stabilize the soil to some extent – though in the photos in the video (the only place I’e actually SEEN it) it doesn’t appear to be doing anything special. Maybe yes, maybe no.

    The res of what you wrote is all reasonable. That the manpower is what made it work sounds reasonable. But it doesn’t explain why after 500+ years it is still stable and viable in a region that washers out nutrients quickly.

    I am hoping all of this develops into something useful for the future.

  3. On second thought, the stabilization angle doesnt’ convince me. Unstable soil won’t be less stable with pieces of ceramics put into it. They would just be carried along when the soil slumped. I can point you at a video of REALLY unstable soil, and it just carries everything along with it.

  4. If there were mounds of terra preta and they were stable (carbon may be an important factor in this than the shards) they certainly would not lose material when these civilizations fell. They would be retaken by forest and the gradually dying and decaying of the forest would only add matter. They wouldn’t revert to the poor soil around them.

  5. I could not agree more.

  6. This is interesting:

    http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Morgan_Schmidt/publication/259126195_Dark_earths_and_the_human_built_landscape_in_Amazonia_a_widespread_pattern_of_anthrosol_formation/links/0c96052d443ec8fe58000000.pdf

    They believe the tera preta mounds are middens. The shards might just be broken pots that were thrown away. It might be they live in an area and grew crops on the middens where they lived previously. As the population grew new mounds would be created and new mounds would be created.

  7. James, yeah, this is one thing about scientists that drivers me up a wall. Thomas Kuhn (whose paper on paradigms pretty much gave us the word) wrote that while they are in the period before a paradigm is concretized and accepted, there are ideas coming out of the woodwork. And most oft hem – like mine – are mostly ad hoc, with SOME reason to think what we blurt out.

    From one paper: “Patches of terra preta are described ranging in size from
    less than a hectare up to several square kilometers.”

    Middens of several square kms?

    With fish bones in them, I can see why someone’s brain went there, but. . .

    Did you ever SEE a midden? They are WALL-TO-WALL fishbones, for their sometimes very substantial depths. That doesn’t seem to fit, not to me. I have two reasons to doubt their thinking.

    Add in the composition of the terra preta. If it was mostly fishbones there would be no mystery to them and no one would be focusing on the black carbon like all the other papers are doing.

    To me, that is three strikes.

    Right now I am reading one on the ceramics – someone did study them, to find out what kinds and to help them learn about different ones in different places. FYI they actually put plant matter into their pottery! Like we do with bricks. This means a LOT of porosity for organisms to call home. Two different kinds of plant matter were used, both from the bark of trees/bushes, at the site they studied in the lower Amazon (below the Rio Negro).

  8. A note about me: As a design engineer, my whole career I had to approach any new project looking for flaws in the concept as sold, so that we didn’t waste time spinning our wheels on a design that would not work. That was always the FIRST thing I did – look for flaws. And then I had to put up or shut up about it, with my bosses and the sales people and estimators. So, now, potential flaws are the first things I see in any idea: Is this part going to hold up in operation? Is that mechanism too heavy to move as fast as we need it to? Can we DO all that we need to do within the cycle time available to us? Is that arm strong enough? Light enough? Stiff enough? All kinds of questions, all kinds of challenges, to make sure that what went out the door would work and keep on working. So, mainly I ask Is this idea going to really do what they think it will do? I’ve got decades of thinking like that.

    And in my OWN ideas, I beat on them, too, and drop things that can’t make it. If I can’t make an entire idea work, though, I don’t drop it. I put it on a back burner, and I patently wait to see if somehow in the future an idea comes along that can fit in and make an old idea workable. I think of it as me giving the problem to my subconscious mind, and let it bring connections and ideas to me when it can find them. And sometimes clear out of the blue, someone else’s idea will jump up out of the page at me, and I will see how it fits and makes an old idea workable.

    So, if there is an idea out there, sometimes I see them working like a champ, and sometimes all I see are problems with the idea.

  9. You might check out “midden” at Wikipedia. It is waste heap containing bones, human excrement, throw away botanical material, shards, etc. They might have deliberately placed some things in it like the charcoal after discovering it enhanced the fertility accidentally. Indigenous people are keen observers.

    If you read the paper you will see that the terra preta mounds are part of large almost urban-like environment of houses, bridges, defensive ditches, etc. There is no reason the middens might not have started small and gradually grown with the houses around moving outward. The elaborate structures around the mounds indicate a high population that would need to dispose of its waste somewhere.

    I can imagine

    A note about me. I was in the Peace Corps and worked in agriculture in Costa Rica. I have been to the Amazon three times.

    • James – Hey, thanks for the new information about middens. I learned something new today. I had never heard of middens except along coastlines in fishing villages/settlements, and always FISH. Along river banks, why not there, too?

      Middens BEING the terra preta source or not, I would expect there to be some connections between the two.

      Peace Corps? A good thing to put time and effort into – a giving back. I am someone who believes in a “social contract”, and I would have liked to do a stint in the Peace Corps. Now that I am just turned 66, and retired 3+ years now, I can recognize that I do not have the energy level required. I WAAAAY respect that you were able to.

      And Amazon three times? Also much respect on that, too.

      You didn’t say where in the Peace Corps.

      I’ve been to Peru, on a self-orgnaized trip for 9. As in, Steve was the main organizer. But I aimed toward other things, and not the Amazon part of Peru. The Urubamba was as close as I got – even to one of the three sources of the Amazon. Does that count? …LOL

      Some of my 9-person party went to Iquitos and out into the jungle. I was doing Nazca and other things. Hahaha – Peru and I did not get along. It came not far from killing me three times – once by potential drowning and twice by luckily NOT quite falling several hundred feet – but close both times. I’ve had a thing about heights ever since. I was never a wuss before, but heights really do freak me out now.

  10. By the way, your comment box only allows you to see one line at a time.

    • James, I don’t know what to do about the one line comment box. I can maybe look into it. Maybe there is a setting I don’t know about. My comment box here is not only NOT one line, but it expands as needed to view the entire comment as I add to it.

      Are you working in Google Chrome? Internet Explorer? I am in Chrome.

  11. Google Chrome. I suspected that it might be browser issue. But if you’re using Chrome too then that undercuts that theory.

  12. Weird. I’ve been coming to your site from the Word Press reader and the comment box has the problem but, if I come to your site directly, there is no problem. So there is something about how the Reader is redirecting or whatever it is doing. I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on it.

  13. I don’t even know what Reader is, or what its function could be. Chrome by itself is fine as it is… Obviously the Reader code people missed something…

  14. My “other” thing I do is impact stuff, about meteors and that sort of stuff, especially a thing called the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, at a site called CosmicTusk.com. Anthony Watts over at WattsUpWithThat.com seems to think the subject is worth posting on. When he does some attack dogs come out of the woodwork and do a lot of ad hominem crap against the hypothesis, trying to bully people into submission. I go over there and have at them and give them a lot of shit. I KNOW the subject, and they THNK they do.

    The YDIH is from a group of about 30 scientists, most of whom sign onto most of the academic papers. And they are no dummies. The scientists don’t get involved on WUWT, but I am close enough to the thing to go fight the good fight.

    I was up all night two nights in a row going toe to toe with the know-it-alls and finally I’ve gotten down to the end of that. I don’t want them putting out lies and misinformation that gives anyone a wrong impression about the hypothesis. So, as soon as I see one of them putting crap out, I correct their garbage and present the facts. I am an asshole to the assholes, but very civil and helpful to everyone else.

    I started frequenting WUWT back in about 2003 or so. The amount of real science discussed there is incredible. It’s a global warming skeptics site, and the “warmists” call them unscientific pawns of the oil companies, but I’ll tell you, they have 5 times the science that goes into their position than any and ALL global warming support sites. You may be a non-skeptic, but when I saw the low, LOW quality of science behind the warming positions, I went looking for better science. I honestly look at the so-called science of global warming and it is just really, terribly weak.

    I was never a geek or a nerd in school, though I was a top student. I don’t THINK like most of the scientists I’ve met. Most of them are basically just rules followers and don’t have original thinking. I just get into what I see as PUZZLES that look interesting – stuff nobody else seems to know about or things that scientists haven’t gotten a handle on yet. My curiosity level is always VERY high – kind of through the roof. And now that I am retired, I can indulge myself to my heart’s content. To solve stuff, I am a kind of “What if” kind of thinker, and because I’ve been so curious for so many years I’ve got this huge archive of information in my head. So I can bring in stuff from all sorts of directions, from other fields, and I am not afraid to put odd things together and see what happens.

    And with that huge archive in my head, when people are bullshitting people, I can see the fraud for what it is. There truly are some bullies out there who terrorize people and/or buffalo people. I don’t take it lightly. People have honest curiosity, and it only takes one asshole like that to blow their whole curiosity out of the water – and they may just turn off altogether from an experience like that. Defender of the weak, in a way, maybe. But I then try to encourage them, the newbies. If they ask honest questions, I let them know that they are good questions. Asking questions is a good thing.

    Gotta go!

  15. If you log into WordPress, somewhere on there you can access the Reader that consolidates postings of all of the blogs you follow. It is running in Chrome too and isn’t a separate app but it must mangle the style sheet.

    My Peace Corps service was in Costa Rica and honestly it wasn’t so much about service (although I think I did do a little of that) but more about I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do at the time. I worked in mountainous area of small farms. Everybody grew coffee, had some fruit trees, a horse or two, a cow, some chickens, in other words a little bit of everything. In lower areas and forest areas I saw farmers chopping forest, burning the debris, and planting corn. Then later they would come back with the pasture and put cattle out on it. At the time, if you went out into a virgin forest and started working it after a few years you owned it. So it was an obvious thing to do if you were poor.

  16. Way cool. In the mountains/highlands there is the same climate as here, except more rain. Here we are also between the two coastal ranges, and at elevation (I am at 6800 feet here), and the climate is wonderful. I had a friend in Costa Rica east of the capital in a lush valley and a little river. They were too remote for my tastes. I lived in farming communities in the Midwest, and that was too remote for me. The city here is Guanajuato, about 70,000 in the city proper, and a college town with a big annual cultural festival, the biggest of its kind n Latin America. Lots of VERY high quality music, plus all sorts of literary stuff, too. It’s by far the coolest place I’ve lived. And I lived in Maine and Denver, so I’ve not done too badly, even before. Living here is cheap, and the cultural level is seriously high.

    Hahaha – I tell people that when I go to the Pearly Gates, I am gonna peek in, and if it isn’t better than here, I am going to tell them to send me back. I could handle eternity here…

  17. Back to terra preta. I think fungus has a lot to do with it.

    Paul Stamets has a trademark on a product he described below.

    Mycochar™: Mycochar is a uniquely designed form of Biochar, aka “Terra Preta”, infused with a plurality of fungi. Mycochar is structured from low temperature charcoalized wood whose microstructure is cavity rich – and within these cavities we have inserted mycorrhizal, endophytic, saprophytic, and mycopestical fungi. This synergistic community of fungi benefits plants growth, fortifying the plants with natural systems for nutrient uptake, minimizing the need for fertilizers and sequestering carbon.

    I don’t see much reference to Mycochar anywhere but Stamets is selling a product called MycoGrow. If Google Stamets you can find numerous Youtubes and other information where Stamets argues that mushrooms and fungi can correct almost every environmental problem we have.

    http://www.fungi.com/shop/fungi-for-healthy-gardens.html

    • Okay, James, now I understand your other comment. I am happy to see someone doing this, and he may well be right about it all. But I am not happy to see that he has trademarked something that was invented thousands of years ago. I actually don’t see what trademarking it will do for him, either. So what if others do it and don’t call it MycoChar?

      I can easily see that fungi may be a solid part of the ecology of soils.

  18. Ah, the entrepreneurs are coming out of the woodwork. Hoping to get in on the ground floor of what they think is the buzzword that will make them their millions.

    Not belittling your presenting it, but that is what I smell from that guy. Especially putting HIS thing in it, while leaving out the ceramic shards.

    NO SCIENTISTS have been able to replicate terra preta. This guy hasn’t, either.

  19. Google Stamets. Definitely an entrepreneur but your skepticism might change a little.

  20. >>NO SCIENTISTS have been able to replicate terra preta.

    I suspect that’s because what we are looking at with terra preta/Amazon Dark Earth is some sort of living soil culture — think live culture yogurt — as opposed to the failed bio-char inorganic chemistry approach.

    The inorganic chemistry approach is the default Western science value in evaluating anything. Partly this is due to Big Agriculture/Green Revolution monetary incentives.

    A yogurt like soil bacteria culture means once you get the growth culture right, you cannot control it for money — whatever the patent laws — as living cultures can be grown and replicated by anyone once the recipe is known. (See the history of the natural rubber tree monopolies)

    The recreation of terra preta soil cultures would utterly change world agriculture as it would turn any marginal land into high labor input, high food output farmland.

    Consider the potential cultural impact of terra preta in places like Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal territories if any marginal land with water suddenly turns highly productive of food crops.

  21. Steve; I generally take out about 10 to 12 cu yds of fresh horse poops out to my hay field every 3-4 days. This is a mix of recycled hay (poop) and grain stuffs uneaten hay and bedding consisting of woods shaving and dust of various kinds, hard woods and soft woods. The bedding has higher dose of urine in it as I let it get fairly damp before removing from the stall. This also lets ammonia get a start. I put this on the field until the field is 3-4 weeks into regrowth. Any left over clippings from cutting and baling are left on the field also to degrade back into the soil. I was using a product called Terra One which is a microbial and fungi treatment to help the plants break down and absorb the nutrients I return to the field. The one thing I have to do every 3-4- yrs is have Ag Services come out and spread ag lime on the field to bring down the PH levels from the uric acid and the nitric acid of the manure. My point being maybe the ceramic (pottery?) shards are in the mix for long term ph control. When the soil gets acidic, even mildly, the weeds start taking over real quick. Get the PH back into the neutral ranges the grasses and legumes do great. Maybe that’s the missing part of the mix? Food for thought?

  22. Jim – You may be on to something there. Some considerations along that line come to mind (and I have no idea whether these are real-world or not):

    The lime gets used up on your fields, doesn’t it? (It must if it needs to be applied each year or two.) So one has to ask/wonder if the ceramic does or doesn’t get used up. Or perhaps the ceramic “meters” the alkaline material at such a slow rate that it hasn’t yet been used up – slow and yet enough for the microbes to do their thing to the soil – kind of like time release capsules for vitamins or medicines.

    Applying the lime as ag does it (a powder? a liquid?) – is that an exact science? Is it applied in such a way that some proportion of it can or does wash away with the rain over days and weeks? I.e., is the lime all being used up? Or is it partly used and partly washed away? Is it applied with some overkill? Or measured out based on the acidity measured beforehand (and perhaps even then with some overkill)?

    The ceramic pieces – some of which in photos seem to be large – would certainly keep it physically/mechanically stable. As “large” – macro – pieces, most if not all chemical reactions would be limited to the outer surface. That in itself would be an effective ad hoc “metering” mechanism.

    There also may be some auto-feedback involved, with the effluent (crap and urine and decaying bodies) from the microbes maybe toning down the acid-alkaline reactions.

    Now, finally, it could be a case of something else altogether but still chemical in a parallel way to acid-alkaline. Perhaps the ceramic is a classic catalyst, which participates in and triggers the chemical reaction but then reacts a second time so that it comes out unchanged after it is all over and done with.

    All of this is all off the top of my head. But you’ve certainly found a valid angle to be asking about.

  23. Steve; The lime application is usually in the form of limestone screenings and fines( dust ). If you get a hard rain right after application most of the fines wash away but the screenings get pushed to the ground surface and get chemically nuetralized in about 3yrs. Application rates are dictated by soil testing, simple Ph testing and slight overdosing can be tolerated. At my previous location the ground was what locals called blowsand. If you didn’t disturb it it would stay put but dig it up and any wind would start it moving. When I turned up the ground to plant my hay field the ground was a light tan color and very light in weight. When I moved after 10 yrs the field was still producing great hay, the ground was fast approaching an black color and the consistency was much more dense and clumpy than before. In the back of my head I’m wondering if the midden piles were taillings from the excavation of fish ponds at the rivers edge. The river muck should be fairly fertile to start with and with the addition of bio-degradable trash, wastes and shards you’ve got the start of a leeching bed that would be quite fertile itself and provide nourishment to the surrounding grounds. Still don’t know what maintains the fertility to this day. It just may be a simple balance of microbic diversity.

    • Good points you make. I think that the biodiversity is exactly what does it with terra preta. And I suspect that the ceramics acts as islands of refuge for the microbes. I could be wrong – but could ELSE be the purpose for putting the broken ceramics into the soil at all depths?

    • Jim –

      A particular point that you and others mentioned… Middens.

      I am probably wrong on this, but for some reason I am wondering why, in the terra preta, the fish bones are still there. In middens it is mostly fish bones, mixed with shells and scraps of meat, etc., and I can see why with little other materials the fish bones survive. But fish bones are pretty fragile things and should – I think – have long since been biodegraded… But they haven’t been.

      So I guess my question is: Why not?

  24. There is an excellent series of lectures by an Indian professor, some on Harrapan culture around here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10tDjMdX_nA). The Harrapan built soils and practiced aquifer management – a larger view of their water engineering projects. Soil construction (engineered composting), it seems to me, was a cornerstone of fishing and gardening cultures – an alternate vision of early civilizations. I wonder if these compost experiments are where the hard work of the domestication of our common cereals and vegetables occurred. Chemical signals between the detritus of our world, including our excrement, along with some inspired additives, discussed here, may have provided direction, in symbiotic ways to the things we selected or found that looked potentially useful – maybe they found us.
    It is easy to underestimate the intuition pre-historic peoples had for utility of things in their environment. A anthropologist encountering a Papua New Guinean highland tribe, with his family and their stuff, recounts how after greetings, the tribal elders, including women, clustered around the basil plant among their goods. Keenly excited they discussed its look, smell and feel, rubbing tiny amounts on their skin, tasting minuscule amounts. This new plant was subjected to the scientific method. Within a week they were using basil in medicinal applications. These people have a name and a story for everything in their environment, plant, animal and mineral. They all know the names and uses of these materials. I know nobody with this kind of knowledge and suspect we might be rewarded if we look past their stone tools.

  25. Sandy –

    Yeah, the fact that stone and burials are usually the only remnants for arkies to study, those two should be seen as giving a distorted view of the ancient cultures, that the akies should SEE that these are very small parts of those cultures, just like they are of our own cultures. It’s fine that they project such and such, based n the stone artifacts/buildings and the burials – if they would only accept that there would have been MUCH in the cultures that could not survive, being made of biogradable materials.

    (As an example, if arkies in the year 3505 look at our skyscrapers and our cemeteries, are they going to be able to tell that we had Italian and Thai restaurants? Board games?)

    This is CERTAINLY the case where the sites are not so terribly old – such as Monte Verde in Chile, and (if memory serves) where much of the evidence was wood. Or at lake sites in Europe, from more recent times. 12,800 ya IS a long time and is before the beginning of any signs of civilization/settlements.

    I myself expect that when all is said and done, the megalithic sites will – like the Sphynx – be of much earlier provenance than is currently thought. (If true, this might help explain why the Mayan cities were without human remains – the extra millennia may have aided in their disappearing by natural causes in that humid climate.) That is going out on a limb, but if it is wrong, so waht? The arkies have been wrong more times than being right, so if they are keeping score, they are in the minus column. If we get something wrong, it isn’t going to be because we are afraid of the repercussions to our careers…

  26. The quarrying, shaping and moving of megalithic hard rocks was so routine as to not warrant a mention in the surviving fragments. Herodotus mentions a paste used by the Egyptians. The rest is in the ashes of the Great Library. It is enough to bury their labors with pithy constructions, stand the columns back up, and claim the sites as our own as the Romans did.

    The Harappan drilled jewelry, teeth and other items with a material dubbed ‘Ernestite’. Ernestite is a mix of quartz + sillimanite + iron and tititanium oxides (Hardness about 8) that mineralogists cannot be sure is natural – it may have been concocted by the Harappan. This I find fascinating having never encountered a material that would give a mineralogist pause, but then again I am a new student of this stuff. The point is that there is a prehistory waiting to be elucidated. It is natural and home grown and largely the preserve of peoples outside of the accepted framework of our western heritage, or buried by them. Their greatest achievements are mostly submerged along the continental shelves where their cities existed before the general rise in sea levels. There crimes seem to be a lack of hierarchy, gender equality and a penchant for the worship of female deities. We have only the correspondence of their successors – jealous shepherds, scandalized by the sensuality of these craft cultures, and determined thay they, and their achievements, should be forgotten. A least this is my opinion now and I look forward to changing it.

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