Prehistoric agricultural depletion of soil nutrients in Hawai‘i

We investigated the fate of soil nutrients after centuries of indigenous dryland agriculture in Hawai‘i using a coupled geochemical and archaeological approach. Beginning 500 years ago, farmers began growing dryland taro and sweet potato on the leeward slopes of East Maui. Their digging sticks pierced a subsurface layer of cinders, enhancing crop access to the soil water stored below the intact cinders. Cultivation also catalyzed nutrient losses, directly by facilitating leaching of mobile nutrients after disturbing a stratigraphic barrier to vertical water movement, and indirectly by increasing mineral weathering and subsequent uptake and harvest. As a result, centuries of cultivation lowered volumetric total calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and phosphorus content by 49%, 28%, 75%, 37%, and 32%, respectively. In the absence of written records, we used the difference in soil phosphorus to estimate that prehistoric yields were sufficient to meet local demand over very long time frames, but the associated acceleration of nutrient losses could have compromised subsequent yields.

This is an Open Access article provided by PNAS. Reprinted with permission from Physical Sciences – Sustainability Science – Biological Sciences – Sustainability Science, 2006 103 (29) 11092-11097. For the complete article, please visit:
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