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The domestication of water: water management in the ancient world and its prehistoric origins in the Jordan Valley by Steven Mithen in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2010)

Updated April 29th 2019


The ancient civilizations were dependent upon sophisticated systems of water management. The hydraulic engineering works found in ancient Angkor (ninth to thirteenth century AD), the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (thirteenth to fifteenth century AD), Byzantine Constantinople (fourth to sixth century AD) and Nabatean Petra (sixth century BC to AD 106) are particularly striking because each of these is in localities of the world that are once again facing a water crisis. Without water management such ancient cities would never have emerged nor would the urban communities and towns from which they developed. Indeed the ‘domestication’ of water marked a key turning point in the cultural trajectory of each region of the world where state societies developed. This is illustrated by examining the prehistory of water management in the Jordan Valley, identifying the later Neolithic (approximately 8300–6500 years ago) as a key period when significant investment in water management occurred, [and therefore] laying the foundation for the development of the first urban communities of the Early Bronze Age.

Nabatean water management at Petra

Jordan is characterized as a ‘water-scarce’ country (Winpenny 2000). It has ambitious plans for monumental scale engineering works to bring water from the Disy aquifer that Jordan shares with Saudi Arabia to Amman and from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea in a joint plan with Israel and the Palestinian Authority (Beyth 2007). Those planning such works could take inspiration or perhaps a warning from the hydraulic engineering that occurred more than 2000 years ago at Petra.

Located within a valley in the south of Jordan, surrounded by mountains and sandstone ridges, this ancient city with its rock-cut tombs and temples is truly one of the most astounding and evocative sites of the ancient world. Petra was the capital of the Nabatean state [which was] founded in 300 BC and annexed into the Roman Empire in AD 106. Located at the centre of major caravan routes linking east and west, it was the hub of a vast trading network that resulted in astounding wealth. At its peak, more than 30 000 people lived within the city -- all thriving within a region receiving less than 10 cm of rain per annum. This was achieved by a remarkable system of channels -- tunnels -- dams -- cisterns -- aqueducts and reservoirs that captured every drop of rain and spring water (Ortloff 2005). The Nabateans perfected bottle-shaped cisterns cut into solid rock to minimize evaporation and the risk of pollution; they created plasters to line such constructions, which were resistant to percolation and the corrosive effects of water. It was by astonishing feats of hydraulic engineering that large populations could be sustained not only within Petra itself but also throughout the deserts of the Nabatean kingdom (Oleson 2007).

Climate and colonization

The first human occupation in the Jordan Valley dates to more than 1.5 million years ago, as known from sites such as Ubediya (Stekelis 1966; Bar-Yosef & Techernov 1972; Bar-Yosef & Goren-Inbar 1993). This was by Homo ergaster that had dispersed from Africa, that dispersal itself being a consequence of changing water availability caused by Pleistocene climatic change (Por 2004). From the time of the first settlement to at least the establishment of permanent farming villages at around 10 000 years ago, and probably for some time afterwards, people moved themselves to water rather than manipulated the passage of water within the landscape for their own needs --- other than carrying water for personal need in skin containers and other vessels. So the temporary camping sites of the Neanderthals that arrived in the Jordan Valley at around 250 000 years ago and then the first modern humans as from 40 000 years ago were located adjacent to springs and lakes, allowing access to fresh water.

The site of Ohalo II, located on the shore of Lake Tiberias -- the Sea of Galilee -- is our best example of a hunter–gatherer campsite dating to the late Pleistocene, specifically to 19 000 years ago (Nadel & Hershkovitz 1991; Nadel et al 1995; Nadel & Werker 1999; Figure 3). This was discovered and excavated during the drought years of 1989 and 1999 when the lake waters fell to expose the trace of dwellings on the shoreline, the excavation of which provided abundant evidence for the hunting of gazelle, the collecting of many plant foods including wild barley and fishing within the lake. It is surely no coincidence that this site is adjacent to a permanent water source.

The extent of the lakes, most notably Lake Lisan, the remnants of which would become the Dead Sea, along with the flow of the rivers and springs on which the hunter–gatherers depended would have varied considerably during the next 10 000 years during the periods of the late glacial interstadial and then the Younger Dryas, the period of the Natufian culture (Robinson et al 2006; Black et al in press). Archaeologists have been able to document some of the changes in lifestyles during this period, most notably the emergence of large and more complex hunter–gatherer communities with art and architecture during the interstadial and the return to small and more mobile communities during the more arid conditions of the Younger Dryas (Mithen 2003). But all such hunter–gatherers were tied to the natural distribution of water. The early Natufian site of Ain Mallaha dating to 14 500 years ago is a typical example (Valla et al 1999). Here people built their dwellings and buried their dead close to a spring (Ain), after which the site is named, a spring that not only provided water to drink but also because of its stable temperature throughout the year attracted fish unable to cope with winter temperature elsewhere, and migrating birds (Por 2004).

Water supply and the Neolithic transition

It is in the Early Holocene that the picture becomes more interesting with regard to water. The dramatic global warming at 11 600 years ago appears to have been the trigger for the development of sedentary and then farming communities following the domestication of first cereals and pulses and then animals; sheep -- goat and cattle (Mithen 2003). This is the Neolithic transition, once called a revolution (Childe 1936). The first stages are marked by settlements that are classified as those of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A culture -- normally abbreviated to the PPNA -- that existed between 11 600 and 10 200 years ago (Bar-Yosef 1989; Kuijt & Goring-Morris 2002). Although the precise climatic conditions of this period will always remain elusive the palaeoclimatic modelling undertaken by David Brayshaw and his co-workers within the Water, Life and Civilisation project has shown that the present-day temporal dynamics of winter rainfall and summer drought are also applicable to the Early Holocene (Brayshaw et al).

The first PPNA settlement ever discovered was at the base of Tell-el Sultan (UNESCO-nominated archaeological site) at Jericho, found by Kathleen Kenyon during her excavations in the 1950s (Kenyon 1981). Since that date numerous PPNA settlements have been excavated on the West Bank such as Netiv Hagdud (Bar-Yosef & Gopher 1997) and Gilgal (Noy 1989) and then further south in Jordan such as Zahrat Adh-Dhraʿ 2 (Edwards & Higham 2001) and Dhra’ (Finlayson et al 2003). These have shown that this period of a little over 1000 years is the critical period of transformation from hunter–gatherer to farming lifestyles (Kuijt & Goring-Morris 2002; Mithen 2003). All of these early Neolithic settlements are adjacent to permanent water courses or springs. For instance the inhabitants of Neolithic Jericho depended on the artesian spring of Ain el Sultan and on the wetlands of the stream of Wadi Qelt; the inhabitants of Netiv Hagdud used the waters from the spring of Ain Duyuk and the wetlands of the nearby delta of the River Jordan which empties into the Dead Sea at a considerably higher level than today (Por 2004).

A useful case study for exploring the relationship between Neolithic settlement and water supply is Wadi Faynanl, located in southern Jordan. This has been subject to considerable archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research and hydrological modelling (Barker et al 2007; Finlayson & Mithen 2007; Wade et al). The PPNA site of WF16 is located at the base of the escarpment to the Jordanian plateau at the juncture between Wadi Ghuwayr and Faynan (Finlayson & Mithen 2007; figure 4). This settlement was occupied over the course of the first 1000 years of the Holocene, probably beginning as a seasonal campsite for mobile hunter–gatherers and ending as the permanent settlement of early farmers, although that has yet to be confirmed by ongoing excavations (figure 5). It was abandoned at around 10 200 years ago, and it is assumed that its people moved no more than 500 m further down the wadi where the settlement of Ghuwayr I is located (Simmons & Najjar 1996). As is evident with figure 6, the architecture is now quite different with rectangular, two-storey structures built out of stone.

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium