Resilience and Resistance in the Peruvian Deserts

A Photoessay By Ari Caramanica

The team looks over a cornfield affected by the floods.


Just a few decades after Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru and the Inca Empire, a natural disaster struck the Peruvian coast, threatening to put an end to the colonial project. Locals described putrefied farmland, locusts and the destruction of entire settlements caused by massive El Niño floods. El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a climatic phenomenon that arises due to changes in normal sea surface temperatures and winds over the Pacific Ocean. As a result, El Niño brings heavy rains to the otherwise desert coast of Peru, causing floods  and related effects: plagues, disease, water and food shortages. While the first written records describing these events are dated to the colonial period, El Niño flooding has been occurring on the coasts of Peru and Ecuador since the beginning of the Holocene. Today, climate change has led to a change in the pattern of events: El Niños are more frequent, unpredictable and intense.


February 2017 witnessed just this kind of El Niño: the El Niño costero. This event went undetected by both the U.S. and Peruvian climate monitoring institutions until it was too late—it was the most destructive event in recent memory, leading to 158 flood-related deaths, 1,372,260 people displaced, and 3.124 billion dollars in damage. 

These massive events push the limits of the modern state; however, the prehistoric cultures of Peru not only survived, but flourished for almost five times as long, until the Conquest in 1532. This past summer, my team and I decided to explore the ancient landscapes of the remote Peruvian deserts to ask how prehispanic societies managed El Niño without the help of modern-day technology.

The team uses remote sensing techniques and paleo-botanical analysis to reconstruct agricultural landscapes from pre-hispanic coastal Peru.


In normal years, the Pampa de Mocan—characterized by active dune fields and wind-eroded surfaces—receives less than half an inch of precipitation each year. And although this environment is inhospitable to any kind of life, we found densely concentrated archaeological remains, including a vast ancient irrigation system. The system included both opportunistic features, such as check-dams to divert or capture floodwaters dating to around 900 BC, and man-made, large-scale infrastructure, such as aqueducts and irrigation canals dating to 1100 AD. It was only after the 2017 El Niño costero that we came to understand how large-scale and long-term agriculture could take place in this desert: El Niño floodwaters turned the Pampa de Mocan into a veritable oasis.

Thanks to drone photography, we can compare images of the Pampa de Mocan in 2016 (a) and in 2017, after the El Niño costero (b). With a team of Peruvian biologists and support from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), I set out to collect and record the plant growth across the Pampa de Mocan. We recorded more than 45 plant species, approximately 70 percent of which bloomed thanks to the 2017 El Niño event. 

Desert flowers
Blooming flowers in the desert.

The El Niño-related plants included wild tomatoes, flowering herbs, gourds and legumes, along with sturdy shrubs and young trees such as Capparis (also known as sapote or caper bush) and Prosopis (the mesquite or carob tree in the United States). 

Incredibly, while the floodwaters caused widespread destruction to the modern-day farmland, local farmers used the ancient agricultural landscape in their backyards as an emergency resource. An aqueduct dating to around 1100 AD acted as a dam during the 2017 floods, protecting the nearby town but also forming a reservoir. As the waters receded, moisture and rich sediments were left behind. There, in these hidden pockets of soils just behind the aqueduct, modern farmers tapped the near-surface moisture to plant corn, beans and squash. The ancient agricultural remains provided a refuge for today’s opportunistic farmers and helped to defray crop loss in the aftermath of disaster.

The Pampa de Mocan archaeological evidence and the response of plant life in this desert to the 2017 El Niño suggests that ancient agriculturalists practiced a fundamentally different kind of disaster-response strategy than what is used today. Prehispanic societies were flexible and willing to adapt to the opportunities presented by El Niño flooding, and some modern-day farmers continue that tradition. One of the lessons of the El Niño Costero is that resilience to major climatic events is in practice today and can be traced back to prehistory. Future management of flood events might include the strategic use of otherwise marginal areas of the coastal landscape—places such as the Pampa de Mocan, which, although it has already returned to its desert state, is waiting for the next opportunity to bloom.

A view
A view of the desert.


Ari Caramanica is a Ph.D. candidate in the Harvard Anthropology Department. Her research focuses on the sociopolitical impacts of borderland occupation and the reconstruction of agricultural landscapes of pre-hispanic coastal Peru using remote sensing techniques and paleobotanical analysis. She is currently a Dumbarton Oaks William R. Tyler Fellow. She received a DRCLAS grant to travel to Peru.


Collaborators: Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia Laboratorio de Palinología y Paleobotánica, Claudia R. Morales, Fiorella Villanueva, Roxana Tornero, Prof. Luis Huaman Mesia, and Dr. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters.