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.”
[Mithen] builds to a striking conclusion. Though we may think that the rise of complex social and economic networks enabled ancient cultures to manage their water, the reverse may well be true: only when a society had reliable access to water could it turn itself into an economic or cultural power.
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.
Mithen provides a well-written examination of how selected societies worldwide coped with problems of too much or too little water… This is a valuable book for the general public interested in prehistory and water management.
Mithen, a proven storyteller, is at his best in this engaging introduction to humankind’s management of water throughout the world. Lucid prose and evocative vignettes make clear the broad and complex sweep of this story, which is both ancient and timely.
- 384 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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