Agricultural landscapes are human-manipulated landscapes, most obviously in areas modified by terracing and/or irrigation. Examples from temperate, arid, and desert environments worldwide have attracted the attention of many disciplines, from archaeologists, palaeoecologists, and geomorphologists researching landscape histories to economists, agronomists, ecologists, and development planners studying sustainable resource management. This article combines these interdisciplinary interests by exploring the role archaeology can play in assessing sustainability. Our case study is Engaruka, Tanzania, archaeologically famous as the largest abandoned irrigated and terraced landscape in East Africa. The site has been cited as an example of economic and/or ecological collapse, and it has long been assumed to have been irrigated out of necessity because agriculture was presumed to be nearly impossible without irrigation in what is now a semiarid environment. Geoarchaeological research refutes this assumption, however, demonstrating that parts of the site flooded with sufficient regularity to allow the construction of more than 1000 ha of alluvial sediment traps, in places greater than 2 m deep. Soil micromorphology and geochemistry also record changes in irrigation, with some fields inundated to create paddylike soils. Geoarchaeological techniques can be applied to both extant and abandoned agricultural systems, thereby contributing to an understanding of their history, function, and sustainability.
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