Book review: Thirst, By Steven Mithen


Who would think that a study of ancient hydraulic engineering could be so revelatory, so engrossing? Mithen shows that water meant not only survival but power.

Visitors to ancient Petra were staggered by "overflowing basins of water and cascading waterfalls". The airport at Phoenix, Arizona, is built on "the most extensive prehistoric water system in north America".

A fifth-century aqueduct feeding Constantinople ran for 550 kilometres. Mithen notes the maxim of Yu the Great, a water engineer from 2500 BC: "Work with nature, not against it."