How on earth would you feed a city of over 200,000 people when the land around you was a swampy lake? Seems like an impossible task, but the Aztec managed it by creating floating gardens known as chinampas, then they farmed them intensively.
These ingenious creations were built up from the lake bed by piling layers of mud, decaying vegetation and reeds. This was a great way of recycling waste from the capital city Tenochtitlan. Each garden was framed and held together by wooden poles bound by reeds and then anchored to the lake floor with finely pruned willow trees. The Aztecs also dredged mud from the base of the canals which both kept the waterways clear and rejuvenate the nutrient levels in the gardens.
At Te Papa we decided that a scale model of the chinampas would be a major feature in Aztecs: Conquest and Glory. Made by the clever folk at Te Mahi, the model, pictured, shows just how lush, colourful, and dynamic the chinampas were.
A variety of crops were grown, most commonly maize or corn, beans, chillies, squash, tomatoes, edible greens such as quelite and amaranth. Colourful flowers were also grown, essential produce for religious festivals and ceremonies. Each plot was systematically planned, the effective use of seedbeds allowed continuous planting and harvesting of crops.
Between each garden was a canal which enabled canoe transport. Fish and birds populated the water and were an additional source of food.
Farming families often lived on earthen platforms near the chinampas in houses made of cane, wood, and reeds. Each chinampa could be farmed by an average of 10 – 15 people, from the same family group, depending on the size of the garden.
Slowly over the years the water has been drained away and swampy areas were replaced by solid ground. What I find incredible is that Mexico City is built directly on top of what was once a lake. Now the lake has almost completely gone and only a couple of tell tale signs of this expansive agricultural system remain. Xochimilco, a major tourist attraction in Mexico still has farmed chinampas, and Cuemanco – a federal ecological reserve.
Xochimilco is a major tourist attraction in Mexico today.