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How a pre-Incan civilisation thrived in the Atacama Desert thanks to seabird poo fertiliser

By Francisca Santana-Sagredo, Assistant lecturer, Universidad Católica de Chile
Julia Lee-Thorp, Emeritus Professor of Archaeological Science, University of Oxford
Rick Schulting, Lecturer in Scientific and Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Oxford
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The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is one of the driest places on the planet – in many years it receives no rain whatsoever. For farming communities to survive and thrive they would need water and soil nutrients, both in short supply.

Yet people did live in the Atacama, long before modern technology. The water shortage was addressed using water from oases and complex irrigation systems. For soil nutrients, the solution they hit upon – centuries before the arrival of the Inca in around 1450 – was to bring a super-fertiliser from the coast in the form of seabird excrement, or “guano”.…

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