Researchers have found that the Ancient Peruvian Nazca civilisation may have actively contributed to its own downfall through cutting down forests to clear land for agriculture.
The Nazca people flourished before disappearing 1,500 years ago and are most famous for creating giant etchings in the Peruvian coastal desert – the mysterious “Nazca Lines”.
It is thought that demand for land for corn and other crops led to the clearance of the Huarango trees, which maintained an ecological balance in the area. The Huarango tree is the “ecological ‘keystone’ species in this desert zone, enhancing soil fertility and moisture, ameliorating desert extremes in the microclimate beneath its canopy and underpinning the floodplain with one of the deepest root systems of any tree known” – according to the Cambridge University researcher David Beresford-Jones.
The gradual clearance of the trees eventually led to a ecological threshold being crossed, exposing the area to desert winds and El Nino floods. The forests would have cushioned the effect of a big El Nino even in AD600, which instead caused strong winds and catastrophic floods rendering land unusable for agriculture and turning it into desert.
This in turn led to huge resource wars within the Nazca community and eventual collapse of the civilisation.