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Anthropologist Examines the Power of Water
On Earth's Earliest Civilizations

Embargoed until 2 p.m. PST
Date: Feb. 18, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Archive: Research News

Maya ruins in Belize

Water supplies and water management were driving forces behind the development of the earliest known civilizations; however University of Cincinnati anthropologist Vernon Scarborough reports that there are key differences between semi-arid and tropical regions.

Scarborough will present his findings in a talk titled "The Archaeology of Water Management Systems" at a 9:30 a.m. (PST) session Monday, Feb. 19 during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

Scarborough has spent the last several years examining water management strategies used by the Maya from Mexico to Belize, then comparing those systems with others around the world including the still-existing water temples of Bali.

Bali water management

"What inspired the Bali research was trying to better understand how early archaic states evolved in these tropical settings. When I look at Bali, I see the Maya lowlands about 1,000 years ago before it really began to fall apart. They have a degree of social complexity that may mimic what the ancient Maya were doing."

During his presentation, Scarborough will describe what appears to be a consistent pattern of development among early states in tropical regions which is in sharp contrast to civilizations which grew up along major rivers like the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, or Indus.


"The paper looks at archaic states beginning as early as 5,000 years ago…where they arose and how water manipulation affected social and political structure," explained Scarborough. "In both those arenas, the archaic state evolved independently of other states."

Scarborough said large rivers made it easy for states to grow and feed a rapidly expanding population. "If they [the rivers] could be dammed and canals built, they could convert desert into productive land very quickly."

However, early states were also emerging in tropical areas. "They're unique, because they take longer to develop. In the tropics, there is tremendous species variation, but each locale is unique. Species aren't concentrated in any one area; therefore, humans disperse."

Vern Scarborough and graduate student Kirk French

Scarborough concluded that water management is a "vector" in organizing these early city-states. "Populations grow rapidly in the semi-arid regions with irrigation, but less so in the tropics. Centralization is a hallmark in civilization, and they're already having trouble with that."

Scarborough said the problems and solutions are consistent across early tropical states from Bali to Belize and including Sri Lanka and Cambodia as well. Civilizations are dispersed across the landscape, but the residents use the local topography and in the Maya case develop hilltop reservoirs to capture rainwater for use in the dry seasons. The result? Water power quickly gives rise to political power.

"Rain is seasonal instead of temperature in these areas. Where the dry season availability of water is limited, semitropical states build reservoirs. What happens is that reservoirs with a huge capacity allow centralization of population, but water can be used as a lever to increase power."

Belize field site

Scarborough says it's essential to understand how the tropical states evolved to complete our understanding of Earth's earliest civilizations. "There are a lot of unknowns. What are the tropical rhythms, and what impact did they have? There are some great things we know nothing about. The tropics really have been neglected in terms of anthropological models. The yardstick for measuring early social complexity is traditionally the archaic state in semi-arid settings along major rivers."

The presentation is part of the "Archaeology and Sustainable Development" symposium organized by Don Hardesty of the University of Nevada.

Scarborough is also contributing a lengthy paper on sustainable development to the UNESCO "Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems" which will be published in the next year. A second paper, "Resilience, Resource Use, and Socioeconomic Organization: A Mesoamerican Pathway" will be published next month in "Natural Disaster and the Archaeology of Human Response" by the University of New Mexico Press.

NOTE: Digital copies of the second paper are available on request along with images from the various field sites.

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