Realms like Westeros, in George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire,” or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast are imaginary landscapes — places that exist only in the reader’s mind.

Until about 80 or 90 years ago, you could have added my Southern California to the list of imaginary topographies.  More than 22 million people consider my region their home today, but that number would have stunned scientists in the early 20th century. This land lacked a single element to support such an enormous population: Water.

But sunny SoCal is hardly the first region to ever grapple with natural resources: Steven Mithen’s “Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World” (Harvard University Press) supplies a marvelous tour of long ago civilizations whose fates rested on water and making it available to their populations.Request Feedback

That marvelous face on the cover says it all, doesn’t it?

Sumerians, Nabataeans (“masters of the desert,” says Mithen), Minoans, Mayans, the Hohokam–Mithen’s book is a fascinating survey of the many civilizations affected by a resource that we take for granted.

Find a comfortable chair, pour yourself a tall glass of water if you’re thirsty, and spend a few hours reading about ancient efforts at hydraulics and irrigation described with evocative, often personalized prose. Then, once you’re finished, take a sip and remember how lucky you are.



  1. I was born in SoCal and have wondered how the reservoirs on which that huge population has remained safe from terrorist contamination. They must be well protected!

  2. I’ve wondered that myself. The Mithen book mentioned in the post looks mostly at ancient cities, not So Cal, but it’s hard not to think about this region when you’re reading a book like that. thanks for the comments

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