By Paolo Squatriti
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1998
Online Publication Date:December 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511583094.001
Subjects: Environmental history
“Paradoxically, one must begin with water,” or so Fernand Braudel, the great historian of the early modern Mediterranean, once stated. Taken out of the context of Braudel's justly famous study of material culture, the paradox is opaque. Braudel meant only that water played a very significant role in early modern nutrition, but his recommendation to begin with water may be usefully applied more generally to any sort of study of the economic, social, and cultural conditions of past societies. Braudel may not have intended it thus, but (paradox within the paradox) he was right.
Water, in fact, is an essential element for any community. Without it organized human life becomes difficult or downright impossible. All societies are therefore obliged to confront the many problems of organizing an adequate supply of water of different types for different purposes. From prehistoric times mankind has experimented with many systems to secure such a supply, and it is no coincidence that the earliest forms of “civilization” in Mesopotamia and Egypt occurred among people who had solved the problems of water management brilliantly. Indeed, the contemporaneous emergence of “civilization” and “hydraulic societies” in those places induced Karl Wittfogel to hypothesize that organized water supply was closely connected to state formation of the most bureaucratic and despotic kind. Regardless of the accuracy of the Wittfogelian hypothesis, it was accurate in its proposition that procuring water sufficient in quantity and quality for the needs of its members has been one of the principal preoccupations of most societies.