Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Water Makes The World Go Round

The mysteries surrounding why ancient civilizations built here rather than there are starting to unravel and archeology is largely responsible for finding these unexpected answers.

The pictures of Wadi Faynan (located in Jordan) show an arid stone desert devoid of any moisture whatsoever, let alone enough to support a thriving ancient population. So why would humans settle in an area that appears to be unable to quench the thirst of a lizard? Surprisingly, the answer is water.

According to archaeologist Steven Mithen, a source of water would have been one of the most important reasons for a group of peoples to choose a certain site over all others to inhabit. The picture below is an artist’s rendition of how Mithen feels the area would have looked 11,500 years ago when the first Neolithic men and women arrived and decided to settle the area. The climate would have been cooler and wetter enabling the landscape to be overflowing with vegetation including wild figs, legumes and cereals. This vast expanse of fresh, green vegetation would have attracted and been able to maintain a plentiful supply of wild goats and ibex for meat.

It is thought that WF16, as it has been renamed, would have originally been used as a seasonal camp. Mithen, professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading, and a fellow archeologist, Bill Finlayson, feel eventually WF16 became a permanent residue due to its many attractive features - such as water.

Evidence sifting also seems to indicate that there are food remains from each season while the scale of the garbage piles suggest that these inhabitants stopped moved approximately 10,000 years ago. If these deductions are correct, that would make Wadi Faynan one of the oldest sites of permanent settlement. This would be where the inhabitants learned to farm and helped to change the course of human civilization.

However; people being people, even that long ago, eventually they all but destroyed the very resource that had attracted and sustained not only them; but, the successive waves of settlements that followed.

Some incredibley brilliant person (name escapes me) once said: If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we are bound to repeat them. A line from one of my favorite songs goes: It’s all just a little bit of history repeating. Again, people being people, we have not learned from many of our mistakes - this one in particular. Now, we are finding that history is still repeating 10,000 years later. This pattern has been repeated around the world for millennia; so, now the problem is threatening us on a global scale.

The beginning of the end began when people started cutting trees indiscriminately for shelter and fuel. When the rains came the soil was swept away. There were no longer enough tree roots and such to hold the soil in place. When both the soil and the trees were gone, there was nothing to slow the progress of the rainwater running downhill. This meant barely any water seeped into the shallow underground aquifers. As a result, the springs dried up. The second contributor to the end to this culture was the constant diversion of what water they could collect to grow enough crops to feed the ever-increasing number of people. The third and final blow was the climate naturally becoming drier and hotter.

Historians believe that Wadi Faynan has been abandoned and resettled at least twice. It is believed that the first evacuation of the city was due to a sharp change in the climate with the second exodus being due to pollution. Today what water is left in the spring is being rapidly used up by the Bedouin peoples who still live in the valley. They have driven pipes down into the dry stream bed in order to irrigate fields of tomatoes they are barely maintaining in the dry soil. Their already hard lives are getting harder. According to local lore, decent life-giving rains only come less than once every two years.

Heavy stuff! More next blog.

No comments: