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In Pictures: Future of world heritage site depends on understanding the past

Posted on 13 March 2017

The Konso Cultural Landscape, Ethiopia, consists of 200 km2 of stone walled terraces and fortified settlements. Designated as an UNESCO world heritage site in 2011, it provides a 600 year-old example of how human beings adapted to a dry and unforgiving environment.

Konso Cultural Landscape

It is thought that the terraces constructed on the hillside were created to retain soil for agriculture, but new research by Dr Cruz Ferro Vazquez, at the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, now suggests that they were built to protect the land below from slope erosion. 

Demonstrating sophisticated knowledge of engineering and dynamics of the landscape, the Konso agricultural system provides an insight into the functions of terrace systems and how their practices can still be relevant to cultivating this harsh landscape today.

Dr Ferro describes here the uses of the landscape and why research into the practices of the Konso people remains important for future conservation efforts:

“The impressive terraced landscape in Konso includes some 40 historic walled towns surrounded by a system of dry-stone agricultural terracing, complemented with a complex array of other soil and water conservation techniques such as water and soil harvesting; inter-cropping; agroforestry; livestock; and beekeeping activities. As a result, the stony hillsides of Konso are turned into protected fertile agricultural landscapes.”

Yelas are a key feature of the Konso terraced landscape. This particular type of field is built by placing a few courses of stones transversally to the river, where fine sediments entrained within running water are deposited, permitting more drystone courses to be added and further alluvial sediments to be captured. Terraces were then constructed for protecting this crucial agricultural resource from stoney material eroded down hillslopes.”

“Careful construction of artificial offtakes and channels ensured that flow rates to yelas were kept low and produced an efficient particle size selection, allowing for the capture of fine sediments.”

“Although erosion has been and still is a pressing concern for land degradation in the Ethiopian highlands, it has also been the foundation of the Konso system’s productivity, and this fact needs to be taken into account when planning management and developmental interventions.”

Notes to editors:

The research, 'When is a terrace not a terrace? The importance of understanding landscape evolution in studies of terraced agriculture,' is supported by the EU-funded Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa project and the Marie Curie Actions IF 'Resistance and Resilience of ancient agricultural soils', and is published in The Journal of Environmental Management.