Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Spitsbergen

Book review: Reinventing sustainability


We can learn lessons from our early human ancestors. Ancient agricultural systems can provide us with knowledge how to make our modern, large scale practices more sustainable. Erika Guttmann-Bond, environmental archaeologist for more than 35 years and specialized in geoarcheology, provides us in her new book with many examples. She travelled the world and lived in various places, collecting examples of old agricultural practices, techniques which could have potential even in modern times.

Take for example wetlands. The author describes a few agricultural systems that were in use 1000 years ago in Aztec culture. Successful farming in a harsh environment, characterized by variable rainfall, hard frosts and infertile soil was reached by constructing islands in a wetland. The artificial islands, named ‘chinampas’, were made out of mud layers on floating mats of vegetation. Small scale chinampas are still in use.

With a little help of stones

An area with opposite conditions is the Negev desert, with a yearly irregular rainfall of average 10 cm. Ancient remains, studied by an interdisciplinary team of scientists, were found and provided the clue for early agriculture in a region where the ruins of a concentration of towns were found. Mapping the area, a complicated system for water management was discovered.

The early farmers must have been successful in taming and storing the water which came down the impermeable hills covered by salty crusts. By building dams, they copied the natural phenomenon of alluvial sedimentation, adding nutrients and soil. Stone heaps (called Tuleilat el ‘Anab, about 1 meter in diameter) might have enhanced the flow of run-off water and scattered stones could have attracted the dew. These stone heaps are still enigmatic to archaeologists.


Guttmann-Bond is a concerned scientist, who, during her career, was confronted many times with disbelief when she presented her ideas about old sustainable farming techniques and their potential value for the 21st century. Colleagues would describe these ideas as “pies in the skies”, which made her look for practical examples in various countries.

Within the discussion on sustainable agriculture and ancient farming, the topic of biodiversity and seed variation should by no means be left out. Thinking that the international seed bank on the North Pole (Spitsbergen) might even be subject to climate change, is a threatening thought. The location was considered safe to store thousands of (farmers) seeds, but has turned out to be fragile if permafrost disappears.

Guttmann didn’t leave out the topic of ´folk´-varieties of seeds, as they might be more reliable for farmers in case of environmental stress. This also counts for specialised breeds of livestock, that, paradoxically enough, can have a tough time under certain EU-regulations. That is the case e.g. with the Dutch Belted (Lakenvelder) breed of dairy cattle.


More robust seed-varieties might become indispensable in the future, when environmental change has to be challenged. Changing conditions for crops are e.g. increased salinity of soils and the capacity to tolerate drought. In India, on the arid Deccan Plateau, drought tolerant barley and other cereals are grown, a tradition that goes back around 4000 years. Traditional crop varieties have become popular again, after decades of neglection since the Green Revolution. In that period, high yields was the main criterium.

Inspiring, a little romantic

Many more positive examples are given in this book, so an inspiring overview of old farming techniques and additional building techniques are presented here. However, the tone sometimes becomes a little too romantic, the pros and cons not specified. It would have been helpful for the reader if all mentioned techniques would have been summarized in a more ordered manner, adding modern examples of practices – if available.

As some described techniques are more interesting from a scientific/archaeological viewpoint and not so much from a practical perspective, it would have been helpful if the author had provided this additional information. Also an index would have been desirable for the reader to be able to search via geography, countries or the farming practices and specified agricultural conditions.

Reinventing Sustainability: How Archaeology Can Save the Planet. Paperback.

By Erika Guttmann-Bond (author).

Published by: Oxbow Books, 2019. Language: English. 192p.

ISBN: 9781785709920

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 Erlend Bjørtvedt

Annemieke van Roekel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One thought on “Book review: Reinventing sustainability”