The Ancient Egyptian invention that made everything else possible

John Gaudet in Salon:

SphinxThe history of Egypt boggles the mind. By any standard the scale of achievement was enormous, but through it all, it seems clear that the economy remained rooted in agriculture. It was the everyday business of the ancient Egyptians to produce food. This they did using a system that was the envy of all. Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project, said that overall, Egypt’s system of basin irrigation proved inherently more stable from an ecological, political, social, and institutional perspective than that of any other irrigation-based society in human history, including the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia where a fallow year had to be interposed to rest the land between harvests on land that was also subject to salinization, something that did not happen along the Nile. “Fundamentally … the system sustained an advanced civilization through numerous political upheavals and other destabilizing events over some 5,000 years. No other place on Earth has been in continuous cultivation for so long.”

According to Dr. Butzer, during late Paleolithic times the great bulk of early settlements were concentrated in the floodplains on the levees and the immediate riverbanks of the Nile. From 5000 BC, well before the first wooden boats, it probably occurred to most Egyptians that travel by water was a must. Today from satellite images, arable land in the Nile Valley is seen as a long green swath running the length of Egypt, with a bright blue river running down its center reminding everyone that if they intended to travel from one end of the country to the other, the message was clear: use a boat. Since boats made of wood were costly, everyday vessels—the thousands, even millions of small craft that were the work boats of ordinary souls—had to be made of cheap, reliable stuff. And that was as true in prehistoric times as it is in the 21st century. Today it is plastic and fiberglass. Then, it was papyrus.

More here.