Archaeology is the study of past (and present) human behavior on the basis of material evidence. What can archaeology tell us about water ethics?
Visualize a watershed: The water flows from top to bottom, right? Water testing downstream reveals traces of pharmaceuticals (lots of interesting behaviors there!), nitrates and other chemicals. In my local river basin, the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, you might also find nuclear waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory upstream.
And it’s not only what’s in the water, but also the river itself, its flow (depleted due to upstream diversions), the fish (most native species have disappeared entirely), and the morphology of the river channel (straightened by the Army Corps decades ago, now incised and disconnected from much of its original floodplain).
The archaeology of water starts with this sort of material evidence. Then we try to reconstruct the behavior and the underlying ethics. This is where archaeology can offer surprising insights for water policy. Since we are dealing with very recent, and ongoing activity, it’s not very difficult to trace the material evidence back to specific human behaviors: Just follow the water upstream, and you have “evidence-based” reconstructed behavior.
Nitrates can be traced back to farms, cows, lawns, wastewater treatment plants, and people walking their dogs along streams. Pharmaceuticals cover a host of human behaviors from medically over-prescribed antibiotics, pain killers, and anti-depressants, to recreational drug-use, to criminal meth labs (c.f. The Netflix series “Breaking Bad” was set in the city of Albuquerque, which straddles the Rio Grande River.).
The artificially straight and narrow channel of the Rio Grande can be traced to well documented ethics about “command and control” river management (see River Republic by Daniel McCool), but the flow pattern also reflects a complicated set of upstream behaviors by farmers, ranchers, cities, mining companies, etc. The river’s biodiversity, or lack thereof, reflects policy behaviors both upstream and downstream by federal and state agencies and local governments. Eels, once plentiful, have been blocked from their migration to the Caribbean since dams were constructed in the main-stem of the Rio Grande in the early 20th Century. Other native species have been overwhelmed by competition from intentionally introduced sports fish (largemouth bass and rainbow trout).
The ethics underlying the behaviors that archaeology helps us reconstruct are similarly easy to identify, since we are living among the perpetrators; indeed, we ARE the perpetrators. We only need to reflect on our own sense of right and wrong about our local rivers, then compare notes with our neighbors, and we can become our own (ethical) archaeologists!
[This post was inspired by the passing, this week, of William Longacre, noted archaeologist and long-time professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. He was one of the leaders of the “New Archeology” in the 1960s and ’70s which focused on applying archaeological evidence to fundamental questions of human behavior. For details, see this 1988 book by Paul Courbin.]