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  • Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World by Steven Mithen
  • Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow (bio)
Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World. By Steven Mithen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xviii+ 347. $29.95.

Current global water problems, resulting from expanding populations, increasing urbanization, and climate change, have inspired several multidisciplinary studies of ancient hydraulics. Steven Mithen’s book explores the use and administration of water across the globe over some 10,000 years to place contemporary water crises in deeper historical context and to uncover lessons from the past. If his projections are correct, 75 percent of world populations will suffer from freshwater shortages by 2050.

“Thirst,” chapter 1, makes the clear connection between modern water dilemmas and the successes and failures of water management in past civilizations. We quickly learn that water is power and abuse of power has led to continuous downfalls. Chapter 2 brings us to the Levant (1.5 million years ago to 700 BCE) where water management had its origins. Chapter 3 introduces us to the Sumerians (5000–1600 BCE) and explains why the Fertile Crescent became choked from silting and salinization.

Chapter 4 covers the ancient Mediterranean world of Minoans and Mycenaeans, up to the classical Greeks (2100–146 BCE). We learn about growing urbanization in the Bronze Age, land reclamation, water tunnels, Greeks philosophizing about water, and the Greek science of pumps and water clocks. Chapter 5 takes us to Petra, Jordan, where the Nabataeans (300 BCE–106 CE) transformed themselves from desert nomads to city dwellers through the manipulation of water. Chapter 6 reviews both the rural and urban populations of Rome and Constantinople (400 BCE–800 CE) through the lens of Roman bathing culture, aqueducts, and water supply, and investigates the fifth-century, long-distance aqueduct from Vize to Constantinople, as well as problems from barbarian invasions and droughts. Chapter 7, on ancient China (900 BCE–907 CE), examines the Dujiangyan irrigation scheme, with attention to rivers, monsoons, silting problems, and the water ideologies of Yu the Great. Chapter 8, on Angkor in Cambodia (802–1327 CE), assesses the kings of Angkor—the first reservoir builders—and shows how climate change ultimately led to massive hydraulic-management failure.

Chapter 9 evaluates how Hohokam society in the American Southwest (1–1450 CE) essentially disappeared because of drought, flooding, and an irrigation system that could not resist the powerful fluctuations of the dramatic environmental changes in the fourteenth century. Chapter 10 analyzes the paradoxical rise and fall of Mayan civilization (2000 BCE–1000 CE) through the reservoirs at Tikal and the canals at Edzná. Mithen also covers Mayan rituals and water iconography (such as the water lily as the royal symbol). Ultimately, nothing was able to stop the environmental [End Page 997] degradation leading to the Mayan collapse. Chapter 11 considers Machu Picchu, the icon of lost civilizations (1200–1572 CE), in order to appreciate Incan irrigation systems that nevertheless could not defend against harsh climate changes and other catastrophes.

While not a book for experts of any one of these time periods or civilizations, Mithen is addressing intelligent general readers who wish to survey many of the most ambitious water management projects ever produced on the face of the earth. Finally, chapter 12, “An Unquenchable Thirst” (for water and for knowledge of the past), concludes that the current problems with water management give us much cause to be gloomy, but that hope resides in our modern technical ingenuity, especially if we listen to the warnings from the past, such as proper handling of irrigation (p. 58), coping with salinization (p. 66), dealing with silts (p. 61), collecting runoff (p. 81), and land reclamation (p. 87), to name a few.

While the book has a breathtaking range and is a useful contribution to hydraulic studies, I have some complaints. Mithen’s claims are often overstated, as if that made them revolutionary. Humans have always been thinking about water, and power has always resided with those who control it. His travelogue style can be irritating. (Was it necessary to include a color plate of the whole Mithen family demonstrating “the Phaistos walk” [photograph 10]? What did we...