Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient Worldby Steven Mithen
Water is an endangered resource, imperiled by population growth, mega-urbanization, and climate change. Scientists project that by 2050, freshwater shortages will affect 75 percent of the global population. Steven Mithen puts our current crisis in historical context by exploring 10,000 years of humankind’s management of water. Thirst offers cautionary/i>
Water is an endangered resource, imperiled by population growth, mega-urbanization, and climate change. Scientists project that by 2050, freshwater shortages will affect 75 percent of the global population. Steven Mithen puts our current crisis in historical context by exploring 10,000 years of humankind’s management of water. Thirst offers cautionary tales of civilizations defeated by the challenges of water control, as well as inspirational stories about how technological ingenuity has sustained communities in hostile environments.
As in his acclaimed, genre-defying After the Ice and The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen blends archaeology, current science, and ancient literature to give us a rich new picture of how our ancestors lived. Since the Neolithic Revolution, people have recognized water as a commodity and source of economic power and have manipulated its flow. History abounds with examples of ambitious water management projects and hydraulic engineering—from the Sumerians, whose mastery of canal building and irrigation led to their status as the first civilization, to the Nabataeans, who created a watery paradise in the desert city of Petra, to the Khmer, who built a massive inland sea at Angkor, visible from space.
As we search for modern solutions to today’s water crises, from the American Southwest to China, Mithen also looks for lessons in the past. He suggests that we follow one of the most unheeded pieces of advice to come down from ancient times. In the words of Li Bing, whose waterworks have irrigated the Sichuan Basin since 256 bc, “Work with nature, not against it.”
In his often riveting Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World, Steven Mithen--a prehistorian--briefly describes this source of contemporary worry, and then describes in detail how ancient civilizations, from China and Cambodia to the Middle East, Arizona, Mayan Central America, and Incan Peru, managed their water supplies and thus made arid land inhabitable... Mithen expounds archaeological sites with verve and clarity and makes the technicalities of, for example, Sumerology surprisingly accessible... The archaeological Middle East is where Mithen is at home. In other parts of the world he writes as a traveller, but an exceptionally alert and well-informed one. He is excellent
on the subject of Cambodia, where he gives a lucid summary of the dispute among archaeologists about the extent and purpose of the highly elaborate hydraulic system around Angkor Wat... Mithen is passionately convinced that the study of ancient water management offers us some lessons... Thirst is a vitally engaging book.
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Eight: The Hydraulic City: Water Management by the Kings of Angkor, AD 802 and 1327
Groslier had proposed that the water management system at Angkor had been devised to remedy the uncertainties of the monsoon and particularly the length of the dry season. He lacked, however, any measure for quite how ‘uncertain’ the monsoon would have been during the 500 years of Angkor’s rise and fall; presumably he drew on his own experience of SE Asia with regard to how the intensity and duration of rainfall in one year can be quite different to that of the next. It was not until 2009 that the first measure of monsoon uncertainty for the Angkor period was devised, this coming from a study of tree rings from 1000 year old cypress trees . This showed not only that Groslier was correct to suppose a considerable degree of climate uncertainty throughout the Angkor period, but also that this became particularly marked in the mid to late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries: the dramatic swings between intense drought and heavy rainfall appears to have caused an Angkor demise.
Growing in the highlands of Vietnam are some rare and especially old cypress trees, Fokienia hodginsii. Professor Brendan Buckley from Columbia University and his colleagues searched these out and took cores through their trunks to get a sample of the tree rings from throughout the period of their growth. Each tree ring records one year of growth and in general terms its width records how much water was available. Buckley and his colleagues were able to produce a 759-year long sequence for between 1250 and 2008, recording the variation in the intensity of the monsoon – just the type of data that Groslier would have loved to have seen.
This record showed that the monsoon got weaker – that is, less rain – in the mid to late fourteenth century, with some periods of sustained drought. Shorter periods of more severe drought occurred in the early 15th century, with the single driest year of the whole record being in 1403. But what is especially important is that during this period of the mid to late 14th and early 15th century, the tree-rings also record some of the wettest years, the most intense monsoon. So in the context of an overall decline in rainfall, the period during which Angkor is known to have declined and then became effectively abandoned was one with the highest degree of rainfall variation – years of drought interspersed with years of intense rain.
Roland Fletcher and his archaeology colleagues have found the impact of such climatic variation in the ruins of Angkor. One of the major channels that runs from Angkor Wat to the Great Lake was found to be packed full with coarse sands and gravels of the type that would derive from a sudden flash flood . Such sediment would have been derived from the northern zone indicating the soils in that region had become susceptible to erosion, probably from a combination of deforestation and drought. A thick mat of foliage was found below the sediments. This was radiocarbon dated and indicated that the flood had occurred sometime between 1220 and 1430 – just the period when the tree ring sequence was indicating such climatic fluctuation.
Meet the Author
Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory and Pro Vice Chancellor at theUniversity of Reading.
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