Thirst: Water & Power in the Ancient World by Steven Mithen - review by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Liquid Assets

Thirst: Water & Power in the Ancient World


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 347pp £20

Water is the most plentiful substance on the planet, covering 75 per cent of its surface and filling more than 90 per cent of its cubic capacity. Yet if we believe some pundits, imminent scarcity will parch farming, turn gardens into deserts, spark violence between tinder-dry belligerents, and choke humankind with thirst. Steven Mithen depicts a future that ‘looks bleak’ because

with the world’s population having breached seven billion, continuing mega-urbanisation, climate change altering the global distribution of rainfall, and the increasing frequency of extreme events … it is inevitable that even greater numbers of people will be affected by drought and flood.

He pauses to ask whether ‘this is really the case or a misapprehension’ but, as usual, the intoxication of argument dissolves all inhibitions, as the author proposes to seek precedents for the current ‘global water crisis’ in the failed water-management methods of ancient societies.

His fellow archaeologist, Brian Fagan, published a similar book last year. Elixir: A Human History of Water was more ambitious than Thirst, with a more impressive range, because it drew on recent studies from anthropologists’ casebooks as well as archaeological data. But Mithen limits his enquiry to a few ancient

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