Provisioning Water during the Paleolithic and Neolithic

A reliable source of drinking clean water is the most basic requirement for human physical survival. Water makes up more than two thirds of human body weight. About 2/3 of body water is found in the intracellular and 1/3 in the extracellular compartment. Body water is regulated by hormones such as Anti-Diuretic Hormone (ADH), Aldosterone, and Atrial- Natriuretic- Peptide (ANP). These hormones are secreted to keep the body water constant. An excessive loss of body water will inevitably to death. In Medicine, a mere 2% drop in our body’s water supply can trigger the first signs of dehydration and a loss of over 10% (7 l in a person weighing 70 kg) is considered as a critical limit for survival.

During most of the time of human prehistory, men were dependent on the distribution of surface- and ground-water accessible at rivers, freshwater lakes and springs. Rainfall and temperature played the key role in the distribution of wild plants and animals and therefore people were tuned to seasonal variations in edible resources. Even small groups could not survive in the same locality all year round because of seasonal variations in water and food availability. Seasonal scarcities or abundance in certain desirable resources prompted people to relocate frequently in tune with the seasonality of rainfall and temperature variations.

Overall it is no surprise, that early Paleolithic sites were often detected near rivers and springs (Colombo Falls, Dhakleh, Kharga, Bir Tarfawi, Bilzingsleben, the sites at the Somme and Thames rivers to name just a few).This pattern remained unchanged during the MSA, Middle Stone age the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic. P. Mellars has given a very nice and detailed description about the ecologic recourses for human populations in the Aquitaine during the last glacial, where the availability of fresh water, shelter from the harsh environment and access to different ecotones were the basis for an extreme wealth and intensity of Middle and Upper Paleolithic occupations.

Before the invention of pottery to store water, people did live near to drinking water resources. Containers from wood or bamboo were probably used, but did not survive in the archaeological context. Examples of such wooden containers were for example found at the rich waterlogged Neolithic site La Draga in Catalonia. This site dates from the end of the 6th millennium BC. ( We should not easily dismiss the idea, that similar containers were present during the Paleolithic. Sophisticated techniques of wood carving have been documented at Schöningen (several spears at 270 k.a. BP) and by an imprint (negative) of a wooden handle from middle Paleolithic strata at Abric Romaní, near Barcelona, reported recently.

Containers of fired clay were invented late in prehistory, but were the optimal solution for the production of water containers. Clay is allmost ubiquitously to be found, and the production process, once established, can be easily learned and transmitted. The earliest-known ceramic objects are the human and animal figurines discovered at Dolni Vestonice, Pavlov and Krems-Wachtberg during the Gravettian, but these items were probably made solely for non-utilitarian use.  After this intermezzo, the European archeological record shows no traces of ceramics until the Neolithic.

The earliest pottery manufacture began probably in East Asia, during the late Paleolithic. Until now, the earliest finds in East Asia were dated to 15-16 k.a BP in south China. If this early invention was followed by a continuous tradition is currently unknown. Other early pottery vessels include those made by the Jōmon people of Japan from around 10,5 k.a. BC and the oldest African pottery in central Mali, at Ounjougou dating back to at least 9,4 k.a. BC.

Principally the manufacture of ceramic pots made of fired clay is generally associated with the change from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies into sedentary (“Neolithic”) communities, a process which began about 10,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean. Vessels made of baked mud proved to be advantageous for keeping water in houses and in transporting water from lakes, streams, or springs distant from the settlement. The use of goatskins to carry water was an added value to having goats for milk and meat.

The active digging of wells reaching the underground water table to provide sustainable water sources that were needed for growing crops and to water domestic livestock reflects an innovative approach to water provisioning in sedentary communities, which should not be underestimated. In arid or semiarid region such as the Near East, such wells were invented even before the use of pottery in this region.

The earliest wells so far, dated to ca. 8 k.a. BC (PPN-B), were discovered in two Cypriot sites: Kissonerga-Mylouthkia and Shillourokambos. In the adjacent Levant, a series of discoveries has exposed a large number of wells dated a little bit later to 7,5-6,0 ka. BC. Three wells for example were reported from the underwater PPN-C site of Atlit Yam, near the Mediterranean coast of Israel at7 k.a. BC. It has to be considered that all these early wells were cut into the local rock.

Zadubravlje is a Starčevo culture site about 15 km east of Slavonski Brod in Eastern Croatia. In the east part of the settlement, numerous post holes, big hearth and few features filled with ash were found, dated to 5,9-5,4 k.a. BC.

Important innovations took place during the Middle European Neolithic, where the first wooden wells are documented. The first Neolithic wooden well, that was discovered and excavated between 1989 and 1992, was that of Erkelenz-Kückhoven, Germany in the Lower Rhine embayment. This LBK-site is situated in a dry loess area fully 3 km from the next water source and dated to 5,1 k.a. BC. Over 200 oaken planks have been discovered at this site. These were up to 15 centimeters thick and 50 wide. Large oaks had been cut and split with stone axes and then worked into planks. Mortises were cut in some way so that the planks could be joined.  The size of the well, too, is impressive: it was more than 15 meters deep. Other wells are known in LBK contexts at Mohelnice (5,5 k.a. BC) in Moravia, Most in Bohemia and several other German LBK-sites.

Then  quality of workmanship, documented at these sites is high and makes quite clear that the Neolithic peoples of the region were skilled carpenters. The same quality should have been used for the building of the famous “LBK-longhouses”, which can be reconstructed from pits and postholes, but have not been survived in the archaeological record.

Suggested Reading:

Figurines at Dolni Vestonice: Places of Art, traces of Fire. Archaeological Studies Leiden University 8 Archaeological Studies Leiden University 8:

Cypriot Prehistory:

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2 Responses to Provisioning Water during the Paleolithic and Neolithic

  1. Pingback: Paleolithic carvings | Bertobeyweddin

  2. How about animal bladders in the Paleolithic. Certainly hunters were well aware of the ability of bladders to hold liquid.

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