Often called "floating gardens," these rectangular plots did not actually float, and were much more than gardens. The technology to create them was introduced to Mesoamerican cultures in the Valley of Mexico sometime around 1150 AD, and quickly secured their place in history a vital tool of agriculture to support the enormous cities that prospered in that area. Today, the chinampas are indelibly associated with the indigenous cultures of the region, particularly the Aztecs, who made them an indispensible element of huge urban centres like Tenochtitlan.
Constructing a Chinampa
To make these so-called "floating" gardens in the shallow waters of Lake Texoco, the Aztecs would plant stakes in the ground, and then create a woven lattice of wooden strips, commonly called wattle. This material would then be used to isolate a plot approximately 30 meters long by 3 meters wide. Once the area was fenced off, the lake bed would then be filled over with several layers of mud, lake sediment, and composting vegetation to create an arable surface, until it rose above the water level. Many times, willow trees would be planted at the corners to ensure the stability of the patch and to provide an area of shade, although the trees were kept pruned in order to allow sufficient sunlight to reach the crops. A field of many chinampas would be arranged in a grid, separated by canals that were wide enough for canoes to make passage between them. The fact that the plots rested only a few feet above the surface of the lake gave them the impression of being suspended on the water, hence the misnomer of a "floating" garden.
Essential Tools of Agriculture
The chinampa system was supported by an intricate irrigation network which included canals, dams, sluices, and aqueducts. Keeping them fertilized was an important job, accomplished by further composting and the use of animal and even human manure. The plots were tended by a variety of workers who ranged from slaves and manual labourers, who worked community plots that fed the citizens of the cities, to "specialist" agriculturalists who planned each growing cycle, alternating crops, measuring the seasons, and deciding which plants to grow on which plots for the best results. Most of the settlements surrounding the Lake Texoco and nearby Lake Xochilimco depended on the remarkable yield of the chinampas, which would produce up to seven crops in a single year. In fact, up to two thirds of the food consumed at Tenochtitlan, a city of over 200,000 people, was produced on these plots, and supplemented by land-based agriculture on the city outskirts.
A Bounty of Produce
The Aztecs grew a wide variety of crops on their chinampas, with the staple foods of maize, beans, and squash taking up the bulk of the plots. Tomatoes and chillies were also grown, as well as colourful tropical flowers that added to the splendour and magnificence of their cities. Unfortunately, after the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, most of the over 9000 hectares of chinampas at Tenochtitlan were filled over and their use decline sharply. However, the technology was not lost, and today a few still remain that can be visited by tourists. A visit to Xochimilco affords onlookers the chance to visit functional chinampas, and enjoy a leisurely boat trip past examples of the lush, fertile gardens that once supported the mighty empires of a bygone era.
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