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Soil erosion began with the dawn of agriculture, when people abandoned their hunter-gatherer lifestyles and began using the land for intensive agriculture, thus removing the protective vegetation cover and growing food crops on disturbed soil surfaces. For many civilizations, it is believed that surface wash erosion, that can occur unnoticed until it is too late, was a main contributing factor for their demise. Soil erosion and other degradative processes have destroyed, over the millennia, as much arable land as is now cultivated.
The Phoenicians, the Roman Empire, Mesopotamia, and ancient peoples of present-day Syria and Lebanon are all believed to have collapsed as a result of deforestation, erosion, and salination in the Middle East. In the Indus valley civilizations have suffered the same fate.
The collapse of a 1700-year-old Mayan civilization in Guatemala around 900 A.D. is also attributed to accelerated soil erosion. Mollisols developed on limestone bedrock were easily eroded when the forest was cleared. As the population increased, soil depletion set in and the Maya culture rapidly declined.
Soils of south and Central America supported thriving civilization long before the European settlers discovered the “new world”. Incas conserved soil and water by constructing stone-walled bench terraces such as those at Machu Picchu, Peru. The thin topsoil was rapidly washed away, however, once maintenance of the terrace system was neglected.
Much of Latin America’s export-oriented economy was imposed by violence at the time of conquest.
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