Chinampa was a type of Mesoamerican agriculture that involved using small rectangular areas of fertile and arable land to grow crops on shallow lake beds. In the Valley of Mexico chinampas were made by the shoreline of the northern part of the central lake system by the Aztecs. The central lake also contained their capital, Tenochtitlan, which is Mexico City today.
Essentially, chinampas were artificial islands created by building up extensions of soil in the lake water. Normally, the measured about 100 x 10 feet with some being smaller and others being larger. The shallow lake bed was staked out and then fenced in a rectangle with wattle. A wattle is a material made by weaving thin usually split branches into slats to form a lattice.
The wattles were used to fence off areas that were then layered with mud, sediment from the lake, and decaying vegetation until the earth was above the lake level. Trees were often planted in the corners to secure the chinampa and sometimes the long raised beds had ditches in between them which gave the plants constant access to water. These chinampas were separated channels wide enough for a canoe to navigate around them.
Crop yields in these structures were very high and in the Valley of Mexico they were said to produce seven harvests per year. They were very common in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish and in Central America. It’s believed that the first of these structures was made in 1100 CE.
These “chinampa farms” ringed the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and other places in Lake Texcoco. Dams and sluice gates were also constructed by the Aztec for water control all of which were destroyed by the Spanish with the coming of Cortez in the 1500s. Some chinampas can still be found today but are mostly tourist attractions due to the high labor involved in farming them. However, in the time of the Aztecs crops were grown on these chinampa farms including maize planted with digging sticks, beans, squash, tomatoes, flowers, chili peppers, and amaranth along with other vegetables. These farms were fertilized using lake sediments.
The Aztec constant contact with nature and their dependence on the environment gave them knowledge about their ecosystem which they used to sustain themselves and their culture. Instead of working against nature then worked with it respecting biological cycles and carrying out works adapted to the natural conditions of their environment. For thousands of years the lake system was a way of life and of survival and there seems to have been an almost perfect harmony between the people and their ecosystem. But, with the arrival of the Spanish in 1521 that all changed as the systems made by the Aztecs were destroyed during the conquest and thus began one of the greatest ecological disasters of our times! The Spanish destroyed the temples and other structures including the systems the Aztecs used to manage the lake. Ecosystems began to dry up and the lake dried up. This destructive process was slow and gradual but very destructive nevertheless.
Today there are some remains of the late great lake Texcoco. A small portion of Texcoco still exists as do the small lakes known as Zumpango and Xochimilco although they are all very polluted. In fact, these three lakes feed the waste waters on the modern city of Mexico!