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.
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  • Lectures 16
  • Video 4.5 hours
  • Skill Level All Levels
  • Languages English
  • Includes Lifetime access
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Course Description

A Faculty Project Course - Best Professors Teaching the World

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.

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Section 1: The Elixir of Life
  • What is the historical connection between water and humans?
  • How was water regarded by ancient societies? Why?
  • How is water perceived today? Why?
  • What is the essence of the history of water?
  • How is gravity, ritual, and technology related to water?
  • What role does gravity play in relation to water management?
  • What is relationship between ritual and water? 
  • What does the case study of Chen Hongmou teach us about technology and sustainability? 

  • What can be learned about self-sustaining irrigation and socio-cultural relations from the Marakewt and Pokot?
  • How can you describe the cyclical nature of water? What is its connection to agriculture? What demands, both physical and psychological, does it put on people?
Section 2: The irrigators - Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt
  • What are the origins of water management?
  • What was one of the earliest methods of irrigation?
  • How would you describe village-based irrigation?
  • What is the relationship between water and the development of our first cities?
  • Why did the Sumerians thrive in such a highly competitive environment?
  • How did people's attitude towards water change over time as related to irrigation?
  • What is a qanat and how did it work?
  • How did early civilizations use river floods for agriculture?
  • What was the connection between the ruling power and river floods? 
Section 3: Reservoirs, Rice, and Rivers - Asia
  • How was water perceived in ancient texts?
  • What was the relationship between the Indus river and South Asian civilization? 
  • What is the Harappan civilization and how did water management play a major role in their lives? 
  • What innovations in water management were applied towards the development of Mohenjodaro?


What kind of water management was used in Anuradhapura and Angkor Wat?

What is a baray and how did it work?

Who was Yu the Great?

What two rivers play an important role in China's development and rice cultivation?

  • What happened to Sanyangzhuang on the Huang He river?
  • How were canals, dams, and levees used for water management in China?
  • How did water management help achieve social goals?
Section 4: The Water Maestros - Greece, Rome, Islam, and the Inca
  • Who were the real pioneers of modern water management?
  • What were the greatest challenges faced by the Greeks and Romans in terms of water management?
  • Who was famous for their aqueducts?
  • How was water perceived by the people of Islam?
  • How did water reflect the dual natures of Allah?
  • What was the rise and fall of water management in the Islamic world?

  • How was water management approached in environments where water abounded?
  • How did the ancient Inca empire high in the Andes mountains deal with water distribution and irrigation? 
  • What is the history of water management in the area now known as Phoenix, Arizona?
  • Who were the Hohokam and why were their irrigation systems so remarkable?
  • How were canals constructed and maintained?
  • Did water help spur the Industrial Revolution?
  • What impact did the water wheel have on societies? How did they work and what led to their popularity?
  • What was the first full-scale industrial application of water power outside mine pumping?
  • How did the use of water resources change during the Industrial Revolution? 
  • What are current practices of water irrigation in U.S. cities? 
  • Is the world's supply of fresh water infinite? 
This is the final lecture of the course. If you have any comments about your learning experience, please take a moment to post a course review. Thank you for joining!
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Section 5: The Industrial Revolution and Beyond

Instructor Biography

Brian Fagan, Retired Professor of Anthropology

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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