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.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. 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.