Elixir: A History of Water and Humans

Facts and information about water and the story of changing human relationships with water over the past 10,000 years.
Free tutorial
Rating: 4.6 out of 5 (382 ratings)
14,901 students
4hr 15min of on-demand video
English [Auto]


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Water. It caresses and comforts us, provides sustenance and refreshment, is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history, and means something different to everyone else. Yet the historical facts and information about water remains little known.

Water tells the story of changing human relationships with water over the past 10,000 years and tries to answer some basic questions:

  • How have human attitudes to water changed since people first began to manage their water supplies?
  • What major events in the past have defined our present relationship to water, not as something revered, but treated as an anonymous commodity?
  • Why are we now facing a global water crisis and what are prospects for the future?

This is the story of gravity and human ingenuity, of irrigation and aqueducts, of humble farming villages, ancient cities, and the rise and fall of civilizations. We draw on archaeology and hydrology, on anthropology and ancient oral traditions, on classical literature and Islamic agriculture—on a broad array of scientific inquiries in many languages and in all parts of the world.

Taking this course will make you look at water in an entirely new way.


Retired Professor of Anthropology
Brian Fagan
  • 4.6 Instructor Rating
  • 382 Reviews
  • 14,901 Students
  • 1 Course

I was born in England and trained in archaeology and anthropology at Pembroke College, Cambridge (BA (Honors) 1959, MA 1962, PhD 1964). From 1959 to 1965, I served as Keeper of Prehistory at the Livingstone Museum in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where I was deeply involved in museum work and monument conservation. I also excavated a series of 1000-year-old farming villages in the southern part of the country and was also deeply involved in the development of multidisciplinary African history. This experience gave me a lasting interest in writing about archaeology for general audiences. This was an exciting time to be doing African archaeology, as we were concerned both with basic fieldwork as well as using archaeology for teaching history in schools and at the new University of Zambia. In other words, we had to take archaeology out of the ivory tower of academia and make it relevant to a newly independent African nation.

After six years, I was offered a post as the Director of a three-year Bantu Studies project based on the British Institute in Eastern Africa in Nairobi. My involvement in the project lasted just a year: I was tired of the stresses of fieldwork and was ready for another challenge. By chance, I was offered a year as Visiting Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana for 1966-7. This gave me a chance to think about the future. From this year emerged an opportunity to work in California. From 1967 to 2003, I served as Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I retired from teaching in 2003 and am now a full-time writer.

There was a point in 1966 when I almost gave up archaeology. It was clear that I would not return to Africa, so I decided to change directions completely. Instead of being a specialist in African archaeology, I decided to become an expert in communicating archaeology to students and general audiences.

Since 1967, my career as a generalist in archaeology, and as an archaeological writer, has taken me in two directions - textbook writing and more general books. When I arrived in Santa Barbara, I was handed the assignment of teaching a large introductory archaeology course for 300 students. I found there were no good textbooks for beginning students, but a chance meeting with a textbook editor provided me with the opportunity to write such a book on basic archaeological methods and theoretical approaches. It took 5 painful years to write, but In the Beginning appeared in 1972, and has been in print through 11 editions, the latest coming out in 2004. Subsequently, I wrote People of the Earth, a world prehistory, which was published in 1975 and is now in its 13th edition (2009). I have written, or co-authored, eight textbooks of different types, all of which are still in print. The writing and especially revision, of these books consumes a great deal of my time.

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