‘An aquatic Indiana Jones’ – Thirst by Steven Mithen

tsmFrom the prehistoric Israel to Machu Picchu in Mexico, from imperial Rome to glorious jungle beauty of Angkor Wat, Thirst by Steven Mithen chronicles the quest for water management, the struggles to tame and understand water, the successes and failures of these battles in the ancient world.

Erudite and easy to read, Mithen can said to be an aquatic Indiana Jones. He travels through the Mayan jungles unearthing the wonders of that lost ancient civilisation. Unsung wonders are celebrated. Important lessons are expounded, the most salient being the relationship between water and power: whoever controls the water supply in a society calls the shots.

The reader may ask what water management systems, some of which are thousands of years old, have to do with problems in the 21st century world? But the same problems continue, our reliance on water, and how it can, without warning, turn and betray us. Indeed in his introduction, Mitten states that as he was writing the book the BBC was reporting flooding in Thailand which would displace up to 100,000 people.

As Mithen travels the world the reader is left in awe as he recounts the ingenuity which allowed the ancient world manipulate and control water. What struck me as most impressive is when the story of Li Bing and Yu the Great both of whom were proto engineers in ancient imperial China. Li Bing built an artificial island in order to bisect the River Min. But this was merely the beginning of his troubles. Li Bing also had to mine a 20 meter wide channel through a mountain slope. A process which reputedly took eleven years to complete but which finally lead to the irrigation of the Chengdu Plain.

While in Europe there is the outstanding long distance aqueduct which travelled a total of 551 kilometres to bring water from the town of Vize to the Byzantine capital Constantinople. Today part of this aqueduct still survives in modern Istanbul, it contains 89 arches and is known locally as the Bozdogan Kemeri. It spans one of the busiest city-centre highways.

Disasters accompanied accomplishments and perhaps the greatest forewarning for the modern world is the fate of the Mayan civilisation. There are many theories as to why a flourishing, artistically rich society such as the Mayans suddenly deserted their cities and left them to be reclaimed by the jungle. Through the help of science the author explains that through the years, despite the best efforts of their kings, the Mayan people suffered and succumbed to a series of droughts which devastated the population, and this caused the people to rebel against and overthrow their overlords.

Any Cop?: In the conclusion of Thirst, Mithen describes the many lessons from the ancient world which we would do well to heed. Included amongst these are: Control your own water supply, cut down trees at your peril and value local knowledge. But most importantly of all is advice offered by the proto engineer Yu the Great: Work with nature, not against it.

Joe Phelan


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