You care for the land and water it

Our changing relationships with water


Brian Fagan 布莱恩•费根
University of California, Santa Barbara 加州大学圣塔芭芭拉分校


The human relationship with water has changed profoundly over thousands of years, but it is only recently that archaeology and multidisciplinary research has explored this complex subject. The emerging story is a complex meld of climate change, gravity human modification, and technological innovation kept in check by ritual observance and religious beliefs. Today, we take water for granted as an anonymous, plentiful commodity, but history teaches us that the societies that last longest are those which treat water with respect, as an elixir of life.
There are three general themes in the history of water, which form the background of this keynote, as an introduction to the research we’ll discuss at the Forum. The first is gravity, the fact that water flows downslope, from a higher point to a lower one. There was no other way of moving water except for small-scale pumps and waterwheels until the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century. Gravity powered the agriculture of pre-industrial states on scales that we are only now beginning to appreciate with the development of landscape and settlement archaeology, helped by LIDAR and other remote sensing technologies. New discoveries are rewriting history, with the discovery of large-scale management works at sites like Anuradhapura in South Asia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Archaeology and historical records tell us that China has a long tradition of moving water from the rice-growing south to the drought-plagued north. Today, gravity still plays a critical role in water management everywhere, witness the huge aqueducts that carry water long distances to vast cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles. Gravity lies behind the flexible inexorable forces of water. But we cannot pretend to control them.
A second theme revolves around the close relationship between ritual and water management. It is the essence of fertility and growth, of sustained life, of renewal. I explore some of the intricate relationships between ancient human societies and water, epitomized by the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, and ancient Egyptian and Maya beliefs that the world originated in dark, still waters.
Today, technology operates against sustainability, at efforts to live within one’s hydrological means, witness the Hohokam irrigation farmers, who once flourished on the site of modern-day Phoenix, Arizona. By the sixteenth century CE, the European and Mediterranean worlds had reached the limits of gravity-driven water systems. Two centuries later, the Industrial Revolutions changed the equation with pumps and earthmoving machinery that opened up deep groundwater for humanity. Today, we wrestle with shrinking groundwater supplies and mushrooming human populations. We stand at the threshold of a time when water conservation, control of this basic commodity, and drastic measures will be necessary and a profound change in attitudes toward water that respect it and approximate with those of earlier societies. We have much to learn from the past.




Biographical Sketch

Brian Fagan was born in England, was educated at Cambridge University, and worked in Central Africa before coming to the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1967. He is now Emeritus. One of the world’s leading archaeological lecturers and writers, Brian is the author of numerous general books on archaeology. His most recent books are Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind and Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Ocean, The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present and Future of Rising Sea Levels, and Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization.