Ancient Engineering Systems that Exemplify Climate and Peace

ICP launched a digital learning series in the summer of 2023. In this series we highlight the wisdom of ancient protectors, caretakers, and stewards of shared natural resources in the Pacific-Asia region. There are many bright spots of inspiration that exemplify long standing systems in place that underscore the need for weaving climate and peace solutions. Through this work we emphasize solutions for the future by looking to the past.

By Rosie Martinez

ICP’s summer digital learning series explored the wondrous ancient engineering practices that have been utilized to maintain healthy and balanced ways of living with people and the resources around them. From living root bridges that entwined architectural skill with walk ability using the shapes of the Ficus elastica trees; to the massive stone carvings that honor Polynesian ancestors based on the placement of environmental markers from land, sea, and sky; the research from this youth-led series spans the Pacific-Asia region.

This series highlighted important scientific and cultural information, provided examples that connect ancient innovations to solutions needed to protect environmental resources today, and discovered similar themes found across different traditional engineering systems from around the world. For example, a major theme of water was observed. In Bali, the Subak were implemented to help the flow of water in terraced rice fields; in present day Iran, the Qanats are channels where water flows up to the surface level for desert living. There were also numerous themes of sharing resources between community members with purpose and intention. For instance, the Subak are governed by members called pekaseh, like in Hawai‘i where the ahupua‘a support abundance between districts and their resource planning and distribution strategies are managed by konohiki.

Themes for solutioning also take shape as you learn from this series. In both Borneo and Rapa Nui, once ample resources found in the forests are now threatened due to extraction and the demand for export. In both Hawai‘i and Rapa Nui, both Polyensian peoples continue to strive toward self-determination and revitalization of their cultural practices. In each special place, the legacy of caretaking and stewarding is dependent on passing knowledge from one generation to the next in IndiaIndonesiaHawai‘iRapa NuiBorneo, to ancient Persia.

Living Root Bridges, Jingkieng Jri

To open the summer series we uplifted living root bridges known as jingkieng jri stewarded by the Khasi in Meghalaya, India. Passed down through generations this ancient technique of forming the Ficus Elastica tree roots and crafting them into the thriving bridges they are today. Unlike modern building materials like concrete and steel, these living structures become more resilient with age and can survive centuries. Jingkieng Jri withstand flash flooding and storm surges that are common in the region — a low-cost, sustainable, and necessary way to connect remote mountain villages scattered throughout the steep terrain.

Due to the harsh environment in which the Khasi people endured, they began to use the resources around them to create these sturdy structures, connecting more than 70 villages. To the Kasi people the spiritual intent behind these root bridges form a connection between the two worlds: myth and reality. What makes these living root bridges so miraculous, is they can live across generations and are part of the fabric that binds their communities together.

“Living Root Bridge Cultural Landscapes stand out for their exemplary human-environment relationship and pioneering use of Ficus species for connectivity and disaster resilience in extreme climate.” — UNESCO

Ficus elastica can grow from 100 to 130 feet. These trees can also live up to 100 years old. Rubber trees produce a white sap known as natural latex. Natural latex sap is used in the processing of rubber and is a sustainable source of income for many Indigenous people. Today, many companies use synthetic latex created from toxic chemicals for household uses ranging from coatings, paint, mattresses, and gloves.

Traditional Irrigation Systems, Subak

In the second segment we brought attention to the traditional irrigation systems in Bali, Indonesia known as Subak. Subak are traditional irrigation systems that date to the 9th century and continue to be widely used today. This unique and ancient agricultural technology in Indonesia is used to distribute water as the critical resource to farmers and communities who live with the land.

Subak are groups of fields that use canals and low dams to control the water. Water then flows from the canals into a rice field plot called sawah. These plots are connected by intricate underground tunnels utilizing hearty natural resources such as bamboo to maintain shape and structure.

Tri Hita Karana is the relationship between people, nature, and the spiritual realm. For the people of Bali, Subak is an ancient and enduring way of life guided by their connection to Tri Hata Karana seen in their cultural harmony with the land and its abundant natural resources. Subak are integrated into temple culture, including water temples and shrines referred to as bedugul.

“Water distribution is done fairly and equitably, all the problems discussed and solved together, even the timing of planting and determination of the type of rice planted was done together.” –Komang Gede, traveler and photographer

The protection and perpetuation of Subak systems in Bali have been threatened due to the high demand for water caused by an increase in the tourism industry on the island. Although these systems are threatened, they survive impacts from contamination and erosion. This longevity shows the power of ancient technologies needed for a changing climate while respecting the natural rhythms of the cultures who steward them.

Traditional Land Systems, Ahupua‘a

Moving to the central Pacific, we feature ahupua‘a systems in Hawai‘i. These traditional land systems-within-systems reach from the upper forest to the sea, sustaining the population of Hawai‘i and developing deep ties to social and ecological abundance. Each ahupuaʻa land division had their own unique features while similarly following consistent patterns to maximize land use and minimize the human impact produced.

Ahupua‘a are Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) systems used to manage land divisions and their interior resources in the islands. In ancient Hawaiian ways-of-life, ahupuaʻa systems supported Kānaka Maoli to be sustainable, subsistent, and be entirely self-sufficient. Dozens of practices and ways-of-life were governed from the forest areas such as firewood, timber, springs, and plantlife. In the agricultural zones trails for exchange, temple structures, and cave systems were sited near villages and fortresses. Coastal zones were abundant with near-shore habitation sites, groves, fishing areas, and areas for seafaring.

Our word for water in Hawaiian is wai, and our word for wealth is wai wai, because if you had an abundance of water then your land was rich and you had an abundance of food.” — Dr. Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor, Professor, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

In ancient Hawai‘i, every ahupua‘a was seen with much respect and honor. Ahupua‘a have taught the people that by giving to the land, in return it would receive an abundance in resources. AVA Konohiki, or Ancestral of Visions of ʻAina — ʻĀina started as a research and mapping project and grew into an important online community resource accessible today. Individuals can discover information about the ahupua‘a they live or work in as a way to connect more intentionally with the land and natural resources around them.

Standing with Cultural Reverence, Moai

The inclusion of Rapa Nui provides us with important teachings — we must be mindful of the amount of resources we use today and how we apply them to the most important needs in our daily lives. Rapa Nui or Te Pito o te Henua (“the navel [or center] of the world,”) contains 1,000 statues. Moai aringa ora are the sacred living face of the ancestors in this Polynesian island. Though small in land size and geographically isolated, the wonder, ingenuity, and mystery of how these ancient sculptors incorporated advanced Indigenous technology and engineering remain a lesson for all.

Moai are reminders to protect the environments we call home now, maintain our natural resources for future generations, and respect traditions that have been passed down generations to keep the innovations of ancient cultures alive. This fourth segment also touches on restoring Indigenous lands and empowering island communities as essential for fostering sustainable peace, social cohesion, and climate resilience.

The Sun is important in our history. The ahu and moai face sunrise and sunset because of its importance.” –Pedro Edmunds Paoa, Mayor of Rapa Nui

Its Indigenous people are striving to reclaim independence to alleviate threats like the impact of tourism and mitigate the effects of climate change. Because of rising sea levels in the Pacific, Rapa Nui coasts are eroding, destroying the moai that stand in reverence by the ocean. To keep the culture thriving, Rapa Nui people continue to follow the traditions like art, tattooing, music, and dance.

Fertile Forest Soil, Tiem Punyuh

In the fifth segment, we learn about tiem/punyuh on the island of Borneo where fertile soil gives life to those who depend on the forest for their food. Here you find anthrosols, or soils with large concentrations of minerals that have been modified by human activity, and act as a carbon sink. In Borneo they are known to the Indigenous Peoples as tiem (Merap lowland language) and punyuh (Punan-Penan upland language).

For agriculture and agroforestry on the island, soil use is specific and determined by where the soil is located. Biochar is an Indigenous practice that was passed down for generations in Borneo through the method of “slash and char”, a sustainable way of creating natural fertilizer. This involves cutting down the surrounding husks, plants and trees, burning them to create ash or char to nourish the soil. Rice husk biochar has been applied throughout Asia for many years because the grain covering acts as a natural fertilizer. Biochar has become a mainstream phenomenon because of its ability to sequester carbon, helping maintain biodiversity yet mitigate land degradation and climate change.

The jungle is our home and our house where all of us can find food. We need even the little trees- they are our arms and legs. When we hear the droning of a bulldozer, how can we help but be sad?” –Lakei Petujek from Long Napir

Borneo forests in Malaysian states are experiencing extreme logging, contaminated water, and labor harms. Palm oil, for instance, has created a huge deforestation crisis in Borneo threatening human health, wildlife habitat destruction, and species extinctions. Malaysia currently makes up 85% of the world’s palm oil extraction and will continue to double its outcomes in the coming years. Palm oil is found in everyday items such as food products, cosmetics, and even cleaning products.

Desert Water Systems, Qanats

To wrap up the summer series, we shared research about Qanats, underground channel systems that use the water supply that flows down from the many mountains located in Iran, providing accessible safe drinking water plus water for irrigation and ancient city planning. Created centuries ago in Persia, the technology for underground canals relies on the use of gravity. These Indigenous systems are important testaments in Persian culture because they were created and constructed by hand.

Desert water innovations are a clear reminder that sustainable and clean access to water is critical for peaceful climate resilient futures as the globe warms. With the use of ancient technology these engineered tunnels allow forests and agriculture to thrive in their dry habitat. Qanats also provide natural cooling of buildings. Knowledge keepers called mirab understand how the water flows help bring in cool air and push hot air out of the shafts.

“These qanats have been the source of life for me and all of my ancestors…It’s my duty to preserve them until the last second of my life.” –Gholamreza Nabipour, Mirab, Caretaker of Qanats

Qanats are impressively engineered. They require upkeep and knowledge management to preserve the flowing of water, however the low number of mirab put the systems in danger of being perpetuated. As the Iranian government has focused on modern hydraulic systems, Iran’s wetland areas, lakes, and rivers are drying up. Over pumping wells becomes a common consequence when water is scarce. Sustainable systems like the Qanat are beneficial as the climate crisis makes areas hotter and drier.

Key Takeaways In the Series

The digital learning series looks at our past to help guide our futures which can be climate resilient and peaceful. Every segment introduces an ancient form of engineering that ties together the importance of taking care of the land and influences from culture, history, and people. Together, this series tells stories to amplify incredible human creations that shape each area’s traditions and sustainability today.

With so much intention, detail, and craftsmanship that is put into these wondrous makings, you begin to have a deep wonder and love for ancient creations and traditional practices all around you. Learning about these wonders is what feeds the curiosity, however it can never fully be filled. That is why this series encourages readers to research beyond these short segments and learn about ancient engineering systems that intrigue them and fuel their curiosity to create systems that balance people, nature, and culture.

“After much investigation in the many different ancient engineering practices that are still used today by Indigenous people from all around the world, I have grown to feel much compassion and curiosity for creations like those in the series.” — Rosie Martinez, ICP Apprentice

. . .

Rosie Martinez is an ICP apprentice and senior at Mission Bay High School in Southern California where she studies with high honors and academic distinction. She is a Mexican American who is interested in studying Engineering in the near future. At school she is part of Mock Trial, Eco Club, Book Club, and Outreach Club on her campus. An athlete, she runs Cross Country as well as Track and Field. In 2023 Rosie was accepted to the United Nations Association of the United States of America, San Diego Chapter translating global initiatives into the local context for the House of Mexico where she promotes cultural events, children’s programs, and history. This summer she led ICP’s first Digital Learning Series to promote Ancient Protectors, Caretakers, and Stewards of Shared Natural Resources of the Pacific-Asia region. In her free time, Rosie likes to hang out at the beach, draw, and volunteer around her community.


Check out all of the segments described in this series on ICP’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn pages.

RAPA NUI CULTURE | Imagina Easter Island

Easter Island — Statues, Mystery & Facts | HISTORY, 9 November 2009,

AVA Konohiki, or Ancestral of Visions of ʻAina,

Haiken, Melanie. “Hawaii’s ancient land management system.” BBC, 19 August 2022,

“Harvesting Water and Harnessing Cooperation: Qanat Systems in the Middle East and Asia.” Middle East Institute, 18 January 2014,

Kaye, Melati. “Charred lands: fertile grounds for sustainable agriculture in Kalimantan? — CIFOR Forests News.” Forests News, 6 July 2012,

Padoch, Christine. “Expedition Magazine | Agriculture in Interior Borneo.” Penn Museum

“Persian Qanat | Iranian Invention — Iran Safar Travel.” Travel to Iran

“A Quick Guide to Rapa Nui’s Climate Crisis — Google Arts & Culture.” Google Arts & Culture

Rathnayake, Zinara. “Khasis: India’s indigenous matrilineal society.” BBC, 29 March 2021, Accessed 6 October 2023

“Rubber Tree.” Rainforest Alliance, 15 September 2012, Accessed 6 October 2023

“Subak Water Irrigation System | UNESCO World Heritage.” Bali.com Accessed 6 October 2023

Trachtman, Paul. “The Secrets of Easter Island | History.” Smithsonian Magazine Accessed 6 October 2023

“Tri Hita Karana — Balinese life Wisdom.” Bali Around Accessed 6 October 2023