Farming in a Dry Land

Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Mexico's Oaxaca Valley gets almost no rain for seven months of the year. Yet more than 2,000 years ago, the Zapotec people created one of the most successful farming civilizations in the Americas. Their elaborate networks of canals, dams, and terraced fields transported and stored precious irrigation water. The Zapotec grew enough corn, beans, squash, and other crops to support thousands of people in cities and villages across the region.

Ancient Aqueducts

A major irrigation canal was built between 200 BC and AD 200 in what's now southern Mexico. The canal diverted water from a stream, delivering it to many smaller irrigation channels. These stone-lined channel systems, located north of Oaxaca Valley, probably helped local farmers grow enough food to pay the tributes required by an expanding Zapotec empire.

Ancient plumbing

In addition to elaborate irrigation networks, the Zapotec built systems to transport water to urban areas. Pipes made of fired clay carried drinking water to public buildings and to homes of high-status people in the village of Xoxocotlan.

Miniature Corn

The first domesticated corn was much smaller than the corn we usually eat today. Corn cobs more than 6,000 years old found in the Oaxaca region of Mexico suggest that farmers domesticated corn from a grass called teosinte. Over the centuries farmers bred larger and more productive varieties.

Lightning worship

With so little rainfall each year, Zapotec farmers spent plenty of time thinking about the weather. Clouds, rain, and lightning were more than natural forces; they were worshipped like deities.