Imagine the largest empire in pre-Colombian America: Tawantinsuyo, the Incan Empire. At its height, the empire stretched from modern day Ecuador and Colombia down into modern day Bolivia and Chile, and included more than 20 million people, living at altitudes from sea level on up to over 12,000 feet. With people living in so many different environments and climates, it was tricky to figure out how to feed so many people.
Enter the agricultural laboratories of the Inca, including the one at Moray. In these extensive sites in the altiplano, the Incas created huge terraced depressions in the landscape in order to study the effects of climate & temperature on agricultural crops. This is where the Incans grew, studied, and hybridized different plants to acclimatize them for different growing conditions throughout the empire.
On a sunny day last week, we took a bus along the bumpy dirt roads of the altiplano to visit Moray, one of the best preserved of these laboratories.
Located on the altiplano, at 3500m above sea level, Moray consists of 4 different terraced pits that look almost like amphitheaters. But the Inca were using these for a very different purpose. Carved out of the earth to depths of 100 meters or more, these terraced pits were used for agricultural research. The temperature can differ by as much as 27 degrees F between the top terrace and the bottom terrace. Each level becomes its own microclimate, with slight differences in temperature.
The theory is that the Incans would take plants from different areas of their empire, and then grow them in these terraces, slowly increasing or decreasing the terrace level as the plants adapted to new climates and temperatures. In this way, plants from the lower areas near the coast could be adapted to grow at the cooler temperatures of the higher altitudes and vice versa. Through a simple yet complex system of terraced microclimates and hybridization, the Incans could adapt their plants to grow in a multitude of conditions. It also meant they could increase the variety of plants available. There are over 3,000 different types of potatoes here in Peru, in part because of the research, hybridization, & development begun by the Incans.
Moray is also unique in that it is built with a nod to fertility. The main pit at Moray is shaped like a womb, with a secondary set of terraces designed to look like a phallus. Fertility, granted by the gods, was important for the Incans to successfully grow crops. And nowhere was this more important than in these agricultural laboratories. Fertility rituals are still performed here today.
After admiring these terraces from above, we got to go down and explore a bit. We could feel the temperature getting warmer as we descended lower and lower into the terraces. The terraces vary in height from 5 feet on up to 10 feet. Just enough to create a slight temperature difference on each level. Areas of sun and shade also affected the microclimate along each terrace.
It is the dry season here now, so nothing is growing, and most of the grass is on the brownish/yellow green side. But the stonework on the terraces is beautiful. And all of the stone steps are still sturdy and intact.
In 2010, there was massive flooding throughout Peru, causing landslides and other problems. The Inca Trail was closed for repairs and part of the train tracks into Cusco were destroyed (& still haven’t been replaced). Moray suffered some damage during this flooding as well, and you can see that part of the terraces on one side of Moray are still braced as they continue to work on repairing them.
The hope is that they can continue to work on restoring this damage. Otherwise, the entire site is at risk of being destroyed by erosion.
Too soon, it was time to go, and we began our long walk back up to the top.
On our way up out of Moray, we passed an area with loads of cairns. Cairns are something that backpackers are somewhat obsessed about and we often see them in odd places, such as here.
Moray is one of my favorite sites in Peru. The scenery in the altiplano is gorgeous and the idea of this place as an agricultural laboratory is fascinating. I wish we could be here during the rainy season to see plants actually growing on these terraces. On the afternoon of our visit, it was simply a place for exploration and contemplation.