General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Apr 2021/2 Flower
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Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Painting of Aztec chinampas (‘floating gardens’)

Super-fertile ‘floating gardens’!

The famous chinampas (the super-fertile ‘floating gardens’ of the Aztecs) are still only now revealing some of their secrets. Today’s farmers at Xochimilco (‘The place of flowers’) outside Mexico City still farm using ancient methods - incidentally, the construction of chinampas on the lake shore antedated the Aztecs by at least 1,000 years. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Illustration of Aztec ‘chinampas’ or floating gardens by Alberto Beltrán
Illustration of Aztec ‘chinampas’ or floating gardens by Alberto Beltrán (Click on image to enlarge)

Like the Aztecs, they still send their sewage into the canals, yet the water doesn’t stink nor does it carry diseases, as we might expect. How come? Researchers have found a unique bacterium living in the sludge at the bottom of the canals which makes it an excellent composter, treating - and neutralising - the sewage organically (and speedily) as it converts it into nutrient-rich fertiliser. With its help, the Aztecs created ‘one of the most productive farming systems ever known’.

New Scientist article 1
New Scientist article 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Davíd Carrasco explains a little more:-
Chinampas (derived from Nahuatl meaning ‘surrounded by rushes’) are plots of soil raised up on lake beds or freshwater swamps and shaped into long rectangular islets reinforced by rushes, branches, logs, and other organic materials. The porosity of the soil and the continual flow of water through the narrow canals insured constant fertilisation of the soils and plants, and created an environment filled with aquatic birds, fish, insects, algae, and frogs (from The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction).

New Scientist article 2
New Scientist article 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Find out more in New Scientist magazine (April 10th. 2004, pp. 50-51, ‘Histories’). The text of the article can be enlarged from these scans - if you’re a NS subscriber you can follow the link to the original issue...

Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore of an oil painting by José Muro Pico, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 14th 2008

emoticon An ode to the chinampa (Aztec limerick no. 5):-
All that food from the fertile chinampa
Fed a third of the city. Magic! ¡Trampa!
Sustainable farming
(Then and now we find charming)
Seven harvests a year, each a bumper.

“Why did they call them ‘chinampas’?”

New Scientist back issues page
Learn about the Aztecs’ advanced waste management system...
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Interesting! Warwick Bray has written ‘There is a persistent story, which was current as early as 1590, that some of the chinampas were floating rafts which could be towed from one part of the lake to another, but it is clear that most of them were of the permanent, non-floating type like the ones in use today...’
Mexicolore replies: Interesting! Where did you hear of this...?!
Mexicolore replies: Both terms are in the English dictionary we have on our shelf...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Sakura! This particular page was written in 2004, by me, Ian Mursell (of the Mexicolore team). Hope this helps.
Mexicolore replies: Absolutely right, Brittany! Thanks for writing in on this.