American Anthropologist

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Edited By: Deborah Thomas

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Virtual Issue - Anthropologists Exploring Water in Social and Cultural Life: Introduction

A Virtual Issue from American Anthropologist
Edited by Mattias Borg Rasmussen and Ben Orlove


Water has become a commonplace theme in anthropological writings. Shifting consumption patterns, local politics, environmental degradation, and climate change have brought water into a prominent position in many research agendas. Water, however, is not new to ethnographic inquiry. This virtual issue looks back into past issues of American Anthropologist (AA) to assess the examination of water across decades. We discuss the different themes that have been treated throughout the years of the journal’s existence, and thereby provide not only an overview of water-related articles published in AA, but also more substantially a view of how water has been part of anthropological analyses. Reviewing the study of water throughout the journal’s lifespan offers insight into the changing objects of anthropological research and analysis—at times seemingly as liquid as water itself. This introduction therefore provides a cross-section of anthropological works, and serves as a reminder of the way in which old questions are cast in new ways.

As we discovered, the full set of articles that address water in one way or another is very large and disparate. We therefore include a selection of articles, choosing the ones that both engage extensively rather than tangentially with water and that also illustrate the range of approaches and methods. This selection is still quite substantial. In our review, we note both a general trend within the anthropological study of water over the long life of the journal and a number of specific themes that have occupied anthropological attention for some decades within this period. The general trend is a growing explicitness of water as a topic in its own right. It has come to play more complex roles as an object of study, and its specific characteristics have received increasing attention. We argue for water in general what Helmreich (2011) stated for seawater: it has shifted location in anthropological theorizing from an implicit position as part of the background or context of social and cultural worlds to an explicit position as an active element in these worlds. This trend is a key part of the ongoing conversation, both within and beyond the AA, on what Strang has called ‘the form of water’ (Strang 2005 ). Helmreich’s question of how water in its different types (whether largely natural—rain, snow, ice, lakes, rivers, oceans--or significantly directed by humans—canals, pipes, reservoirs) functions to influence and even to generate theory in anthropology is also pertinent to this review. In the course of the decades since 1893 where we found the first water-related article, we trace a similar move in water as a shifting object of anthropological concern.

The review is divided into five sections that correspond to specific themes, each associated with – although not strictly limited to - a particular period. The first, People, water and place, treats water as context, i.e. as an element in the external world in which an individual culture is located. This begins with the early Boasian ethnologists who were concerned with indigenous life-worlds, and then moves on to local studies of place-making and the politics of place and beyond, to larger bodies of water and geopolitical concerns. Production and the domestication of water looks into the ways that people make a living by reordering the waters in their surroundings. These studies consider technologies of production and mobility in rainforests, steppes and highland environments, particularly in the form of agriculture, fisheries and the construction of hydropower facilities. This section and the following show water as possessing particular material uses. In Irrigation and the concentration of power, we review the extensive debate on irrigation practices and its relation to power, state formation, and the question of the commons. Environmental knowledge concerns cultural models related to water, and explores the range of cultural knowledge of watery environments across topics such as navigation practices, weather and aquatic species. This section shows water as a complex entity, capable of being known in many ways; at times, these multiple forms of knowledgeenter into conflict, particularly in cases in conservation programs bring different groups and societies together. This section leads the reader into the recent discussions the relation between epistemology and ontology. Disaster and climate reflects the most recent impulse in scholarly concern, showing water as a powerful agent, at times dangerous and not fully predictable. (This unpredictability points to the limits of forms of knowledge, a question which was not addressed in earlier papers.) A series of articles considers the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, discussing a number of interpretations of water’s capacity for violence and destruction. More broadly, several articles are concerned with environmental and climatic change and its impact on human lives. We close the review by reflecting on this dispersed field of an anthropology of water, and on its possible future as a more articulated subfield of the discipline—which would bring the rather dispersed tendencies of water as a subject of anthropological inquiry into closer dialogue.

People, water and place

Much of the ethnological endeavor at the turn of the twentieth century was directed towards gathering broad factual knowledge that would otherwise be lost. Early American anthropology was concerned with the vanishing worlds of the North American Indians. Many of these studies are rich in detail about indigenous languages, but do not do not attend to the experiences and worlds of meaning of the speakers of those languages. Gatschet (1902) catalogued the place-names along the Catawba River which flowed south from the Appalachians and suggested the etymology of these names. In the context of cultural extinction, his article notes how the first nation peoples expressed belonging to a place by naming its aquatic as well as terrestrial features. Grinnell also wrote about the names that both the Cheyenne (1906), the dominant group in the territories from Yellowstone to Arkansas, and the Pawnee and Gros Ventres (1913) of northern Montana, gave to streams. He highlighted the descriptive names of ‘primitive America’ in which each place name derives from its particular qualities. We learn that the local name of the Missouri River, E’omita’i means ‘It give [us, or the people] fat’ (Grinnell 1906:16). Other rivers are named after the species of animal living there, such as elk (Yellowstone River), antelope (Little Missouri River) or sheep (Little Bighorn River), or plants, such as roseberries (Rosebud River), or peculiar events (the Crazy Woman’s River relates to the story of some women giving themselves up to a scalping party of successful hunters). Even though both articles are catalogues of place-names, the details of the names reveal the close connections between people and place.

Also concerned with linguistics, Prince (1905) collected stories among the displaced Mohicans. This work is done in their own language, and ‘[t]here is something peculiarly melancholy in the thought that we probably have in this text the last specimen of the tongue which was heard for centuries along the shores of the great Maik’anetúk, or Mohican River, as the original inhabitants called the Hudson (Prince 1905:75-6). In a dramatic story of tribal rivalry, the Hudson River serves as a site of sign-telling, as a woman learns through a vision in the spring that a hunting party will be attacked.

Parker (1909) took up water in a different form, showing that snow may also provide the basis for leisure. The Seneca-Iroquois’ snow-snake, ‘well known to ethnologists’ (Parker 1909:250) consists of throwing a long smooth stick, the snake or gawasa, into a trench in the snow at a greater distance than the opponent. Again, the author was particularly interested in the material and linguistic properties of the game, treating games, like place-names, as elements found in many cultures around the world and therefore appropriate for anthropological collection and classification. It is also worth noticing how snow emerges as part of the cultural world. The players must both know how to read the qualities of the snow and prepare their gawasa accordingly, guarding these secret forms of knowledge, and know how to navigate a religious-political field in which missionaries are trying to suppress native forms of leisure.

Moving back and forth between ancient Egypt and contemporary Native America, Emerson (1894) tried to make sense of the rain ceremonies that each society practiced. Tracing images in the Book of the Dead and visual arts, she sought to use cases from ancient Egypt and contemporary Native America to shed light on each other, as if they were both instances of a single empirical phenomenon. Water in both Egypt and North America is therefore intricately linked to cultural worlds, and tightly connected to processes of life and death. The author’s final discussion (Emerson 1894:254-59) is particularly suggestive of this second relation, and broadens the ethnographic spectrum to include pieces of evidence of this connection to cases from Greenland, Peru and India

The place of water in cultural worlds is also the theme of articles which appeared in later volumes of the journal. McAllester (1941) and Richardson and Hanks (1942) both looked at water as an agent of discipline among the Blackfoot and Crow, the latter article being a comment on the former. Here the relations of culture and personality emerge a theme as the authors explored the role of water in child development and socialization (or, in more contemporary language, what could be termed the formation of subjects). They showed how a ‘particular pattern of discipline involving the use of water coexisted with a strong belief in water-beings as awesome or terrible creatures’ (Richardson and Hanks 1942:604). Building on the insights of development psychology that early childhood experiences influence the later life of individuals, McAllester argued that mythologies and images of water intersect with everyday practices of child rearing, certain food-taboos and social dynamics. Here, not only does the relationship between a homogenous social group and its traditional environment emerge, but also the relationship between individual and group, and the ways in which patterns of culture – the understanding of what water is – influence the creation of personhood. Richardson and Hanks made a short reply to the thesis presented by McAllester, in which they cast doubt about both his psychological thesis about repression and anxiety as well as on the ethnographic details regarding the use of water to discipline children. Evoking the debates of the period over the sources and interrelations of cultural practices and mental phenomena, they call for attention to other ways of accounting for ‘the cultural fabric’ such as ‘geography, climate, neighboring cultural groups and the history of the group’ (Richardson and Hanks 1942:333), warning against thinly argued psychological explanations.

Put together, the two pieces tell a disputed story about the social life of water on the Great Plains, and about tensions within academia about the understanding of cultural worlds. Within this debate on the relation between ‘man and culture’, Shimkin (1942) discussed historical dynamics of the Wind River Shoshone of Wyoming. Revealing a long history of encounter between trappers, settlers, soldiers, priests, and different groups of Native Americans, Shimkin showed how the territories along the Wind River change and how the position of the Shoshone changed accordingly. The river as a body of water is here the site of encounters, of struggles over resources and cultural significance, but its importance beyond geographical particularity is not explored. Much as in other early writings on water, it is the place where culture occurs. In other words, the river as river and the water as water are not discussed. The article, however, tells a story about how people relate to, indeed produce, place. The other sections of this review deal with articles that treat more explicitly human engagement with water.

Production and the domestication of water

We live in worlds in which water is a fundamental element. Landscapes are defined by the absence and presence of water, by its flow, and by its varying characteristics: whether as solid ice, as liquid or as gaseous vapor or steam; whether as fresh, brackish or saline. With their different methodologies and research objects, cultural anthropologists and archaeologists examine the ways that people are shaped by environments while also shaping them. In the following section we review debates on human-environmental interactions in environments that are particularly marked by absence and presence of water. These debates often focus on the impacts of particular cultural forms of landscape formation in terms of environmental degradation.

Being part of cultural and productive landscapes, technologies for dealing with water flows have occupied a special place in anthropological analysis. The rainforest captures the human imagination, and as such it has traditionally been locus of discussions on the relationship between hunters and gatherers and their environment. With the cultural ecology of Julian Steward and the cultural materialism of Marvin Harris and Robert Carneiro, among others, the 1970s saw a lively debate in the borderland between biology and anthropology on culture and nutrition, particularly proteins (Gross 1975). Beckerman (1979) responded to this debate in 1979, arguing that water is part of the ecosystem that hosts human populations, and so must been seen as part of cultural adjustments to specific environments. Thus, the ability of the riverine ecosystems to support organisms that provide proteins and the technologies available for extracting them are central to these articles. Understanding how people use the rivers and lakes to procure proteins, otherwise scarce in the rainforest, is therefore crucial in these articles, where we see anthropology overlap with biology and ecology in its collection of quantitative and spatial data. The debate on the viability of living as hunters and gatherers in the tropical rain forest continued through the 1980s. The debate was resumed in Bailey, et al. (1989), and with a reply by forest ecologists Colinvaux and Bush (1991) who argued that Bailey et al. did not appreciate the dynamics of the tropical rainforest (see also Eder 1984; Milton 1984). Rainforests are also forests of rivers, and common to these studies in all their diversity is their interest in how the environment shapes human lives. Water is what characterizes this particular environment: these articles argue that understanding feedback mechanisms between soil, plants and animals work is imperative for understanding how human society is organized.

Moran (1991) studied the blackwater rivers of northeastern Brazil, which he found to be a very poor environment in productive terms. In response, Coomes (1992) argued that the blackwaters were, indeed, home to tasty, diverse and plentiful fish, which the mestizo forest dwellers on the Rio Negro were able to sell at the market in the urban sprawl of Iquitos. Thus, the rivers, lakes and oceans not only provide water for terrestrial production but in themselves are sources of livelihoods; anthropologists have been concerned with these aquatic modes of production and their relation to both consumption and power.

In highland Peru and Bolivia around Lake Titicaca, Levieil and Orlove (1990) discussed how communities maintain and control fishing territories, emphasizing conflicts between formal legal codes and informal regulations. Like earlier discussions on water in relation to irrigation, aquatic resources raise the question of the management of common property, but here requiring specific knowledge of the movements of both water and organisms. Acheson and Gardner (2004) raised a similar question in their study of the Maine lobster industry. Using game theory, the authors explored how territoriality emerges and how it is maintained through different institutional logics. Like the case of the communal management in Lake Titicaca, different informal property regimes converge and conflict with government regulations. Gragson (1992) provided an overview of the ecology of native fishing in the Amazon. His paper refers back to the articles discussed in this review on the ability of the tropical rain forests to sustain human populations. However, as he points out, these studies have tended to overlook the importance of aquatic resources. He finds that fish appears to be a more reliable food source than game ‘because fish are significantly more abundant in time and productive over time’ (Gragson 1992:436). To Gragson, ethnographers therefore need to improve our understanding of how fishing relates to other subsistence strategies in the Amazon. His question therefore aligns with ongoing debates on the role of fishing in relation to ancient societies.

Wilson (1981), an archaeologist, considered ‘the rise of complex societies’ in coastal Peru, asking whether it was the development of domesticated plants such as maize or the rich waters of the Pacific Ocean that provided the necessary subsistence levels to ensure the rise of civilization. Speaking into debates on agriculture and state formation that we shall return to, and specifically addressing the ‘maritime and terrestrial hypotheses’ of the rise of civilization in coastal Peru, the article is noteworthy for its concerns with the ocean as provider of livelihoods. While the author found that it was indeed agriculture and not fishing that provided the basis for non-egalitarian societies to evolve on the coast of Peru, the article also shows how fishing and other kinds of resource extraction from the vast oceans required knowledge on the natural cycles, animal migrations and events such as El Niño. Quilter and Stocker (1983) however were not convinced by Wilson’s argument, arguing that the economies and technologies of maritime subsistence were more complex. With reference to recent studies on the interactions between highland, lowland and Amazonian areas, they find that the marine resources were part of a web of interactions of resources and ideas that ultimately led to new forms of political and economic integration. From Mayan Yucatan, Lange (1971) raised a similar question when addressing the comparative importance of marine resources in comparison with agricultural products.

Highlighting the correlations between technology and the concentration of economic and political power, Arnold (1995) examined the emergence of watercraft among pre-historic coastal hunter-gatherer societies in California and British Columbia and its connection to processes of social stratification. Thus, she argued, settlement along the coast and the development of technologies ‘may have led to increased sociopolitical complexity’ (Arnold 1995:743) and the ‘analysis of boat ownership and use is particularly important to understand the implications of watercraft for changing power relations’ (Arnold 1995:744) beyond the North American Pacific coast. Looking back in time, Horvath and Finney (1969) tested forms of paddling of the Hawaiian double canoe to discuss the problem of Polynesian voyaging and settlement. Returning to the question of power and technology, Graffam (1992) explored the raised fields around Lake Titicaca after the fall of the Tihuanaco state. A technology for removing water from fields and thereby controlling the level of moisture in the soil, these raised fields had higher yields than other areas. The central question to Graffam was the relationship between state collapse, water management and the organization of agricultural production and pastoralism.

Graffam’s article points to an ongoing scholarly debate on state-formation, water management and agriculture, which has also held a prominent place in AA. Dominated by archaeologists, a group of studies have therefore sought to understand the emergence of state in relation to agriculture, and importantly, the control of water and knowing the movement of water and its seasonal fluctuations in the riverbeds. Park (1992) studied riverine flood recession agriculture in ancient Egypt and along the Senegal River. He used the framework of chaos theory to examine the links between environments, particularly water in rivers and as rainfall, and forms of social organization He highlighted how water use and management influenced economic stratification, institutionalized population control and common property regimes. Both Fisher (2005), in the Patzcuaro Basin in Mexico, and Darling, et al. (2004), along the Gila River in Arizona, explored aspects of human-environmental interactions from an archaeological point of view that concerned pre- and postcolonial times. These studies all consider environments that are in constant flux, but also are ones in which the flow of water is engineered and diverted by human technologies. These are flows of water in a contested landscape, in which new, powerful actors enter into patterns of land-clearing for cultivation and extraction of timber and wildlife. Settlers and farmers, loggers and hunters, introduce new forms of usage, though traditional forms of land- and water use may not in itself be as unproblematic as it has sometimes been claimed.

These studies present different ways of domesticating water and other associated resources. In contrast to the articles mentioned above, which emphasized the ways that water enables productivity and livelihoods, Harper (2005) considered the way that other economic activities harm water, in turn harming humans. Set in post-socialist Hungary, this article compared two rivers, the Danube and the Tisza, and discussed the pollution and environmental degradation they have suffered. Rivers are of particular interest in this case because of their ability to ‘flow and move, crossing different landscapes and territories’ (Harper 2005:221). The author traced environmental movements and the emergence of two particular frames for political critique and transformation: ‘ecocolonialism’ and ‘wild capitalism’. In this setting, the rivers are sites of intense struggles over meaning and resources, and the management of larger bodies of freshwater is tightly connected to the building (or tearing down) of a state after the end of socialism. As the few studies of large-scale hydropower complexes have shown (Folch 2013 in Paraguay; Geiser 1973 in Egypt), infrastructural projects are related both to social ideologies and representations, as in the stories of the mobility of Nubian populations following the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1902, and to the outright exercise of political power and (in the case of Paraguay) violent force. Although the two articles on dams are very different, they both highlight the way that the control of water by particular political entities in these large projects is both generated by and generative of power. We therefore turn to the debates that have run for over half a century over the role of irrigation as a particular form of domestication of water and its role in the concentration of political power and state formation. In many ways, these articles speak back to those discussed in this section on the role of water in productive systems. However, since the debates on irrigation, state formation and the possible tragedies of the commons consist of a rich subfield within the anthropology of water, they will therefore be treated separately.

Irrigation and the concentration of power

Much of the literature on agriculture and irrigation has implicitly or explicitly been in debate with Karl Wittfogel’s 1957 thesis of oriental despotism and the hydraulic-bureaucratic state. Wittfogel argued that irrigation was associated with predatory or dominant elites, thus echoing anthropological studies on the rise of the state. Other researchers, however, have seen the locus of irrigation control in small-scale communities. Several lines of work addressed the question of coordination of effort and investment required for large-scale irrigation. Where Wittfogel saw the coercive state, Garrett Harding in his influential 1968 essay published in Science on ‘the tragedy of the commons’ saw the market as failing to manage and provide incentives for common property water, pointing to difficulties of coordination and investment. Thus, a second major body of literature on irrigation and water as part of agricultural production has been in dialogue with Hardin. But where he found that common resources are bound to depletion due to unchecked self-interest, many ethnographers join Nobel laureate Ostrom in rebuking the thesis through ethnographic cases and analytical models focusing on small-scale communities and shared governance rules which rein in the negative consequences of self-interested behavior. Thus, to Ostrom and others, the community is an often successful means of managing water collectively, thus challenging Wittfogel’s thesis.

Kelly (1983) provided a useful conceptual framework for organizing research on irrigation. Four areas that require particular attention were highlighted: first, the ‘irrigation system’ should be broken down into hydrological, social and physical units. Second, there has been a narrow focus on water delivery at the expense of attention to water source control, application of water to crops, and drainage. The author calls for attention to the different phases of irrigation. Third, he calls for better definitions of the ‘centralization’ of power, which has been loosely used to denote both local authority and state power. Instead, there should be a differentiation between the internal centralization of irrigation roles and an external articulation of political authority. Lastly, a focus on ‘the natural facts of water’ rather than cultural meanings has obscured how irrigation is a culturally specific expression of water resources.

Studies of irrigation and the commons did not start with Wittfogel and Hardin, nor did it end with Ostrom. Within AA, Julian Steward (1949) drew attention to the importance of irrigation technologies and control of water in ‘the development of early civilizations’ in his broad typology of lines of cultural evolution. This work is, in many ways, a predecessor to his ‘cultural ecology’ that sought to establish precisely the relationship between human cultures and their environment. The case of the development of early civilization is a dynamic process that involves demographic pressure, technology, politics, religious practices, and agricultural production set in a particular environment. To Steward, water and irrigation are therefore indexical of the level of development and tied to ‘civilization’, that is, to the ability of any particular group to establish the technology, knowledge and political organization necessary to adapt to the arid environments such as those of coastal Peru.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of taking into account the dynamic nature of the planet on which people live was Moseley’s (1983) hypothesis of agrarian collapse. Using the example of the Peruvian Andes, Moseley proposed that in certain areas of the world, tectonic movements, both gradual and seismic, hold explanatory power for the widespread decline of agriculture and state. The shifts of the earth’s crust alter slope gradient and water flows, leading vegetation to follow. Primacy here is given to the natural environment since ‘social causality can never be proven until all potential sources of natural causality are first disproven’ (Moseley 1983:779). The article is a reminder that water-–including water intended for irrigation-–is located in highly dynamic environments. Practices of irrigation and the loss and alterations of these can come in many forms.

In AA, studies of irrigation started with Hodge (1893) on ancient irrigation technologies in Arizona. Although irrigation is at the center of the analysis, the questions asked are different from the later debates on state formation, the commons and cultural meanings. For Hodge, the presence of irrigation are ‘illustrations’ of the ‘industry, perseverance, and degree of advancement’ (Hodge 1893:323) of the Pueblo Indians. Whereas it was previously believed that irrigation what brought to the area by the Spaniards, Hodge showed how archaeological findings placed practices of irrigation in the pre-conquest era and with important lessons to be learned for the present. The article is rich in detail on the form and construction of the irrigation canals, placing them in the physical landscape and showing a continuity between the construction labor and settlement patterns of the past with the occupation and irrigation practices of the present.

While working among the Navajo in the southwestern US, Ester Goldfrank (1945) argued that agriculture and its role in community leadership must be recognized in order to understand Navajo institutions. Goldfrank noted that the Navajo have historically been both agriculturalists and pastoralists, and not a nomadic or semi-nomadic people as some seem to have claimed. We note here that the distinction between irrigated and non-irrigated lands are blurred by flood irrigation that takes advantage of the natural fluctuations on the margins of the rivers, diverting flood water to nearby fields. Goldfrank then asked the still pertinent question: ‘What patterns of community organization and leadership emerged among the Navaho [sic] under the stress of their semi-arid environment?’ (Goldfrank 1945:269). The emergent interest in the relationship between control of water and political forms is evident here, and reference is made to the early work of Wittfogel. Anticipating Hardin’s work that was published some 20 years after hers, Goldfrank observed that ‘where agriculture depends on water-control, corporation is not only necessary, but it increases with the increase of usable water and land’ (Goldfrank 1945:271). Thus, to Goldfrank community organization and leadership was closely related to the development and maintenance of irrigation.

Downs (1965) study of the social consequences of a dry well among the Navajo suggest that stock water is important for understanding the composition of water-user groups, their size, residential patterns and mobility. He first demonstrated how extended families meet the threat of drought by drawing on relationships internal and external to the family, including the reservations political institutions. Downs’ then describes how the drought also changes the composition of social relationships within the group.

Woodbury (1961) discussed Hohokam irrigation though an analysis of the course and depth of individual canals and their chronological age and longevity, as well as their place in the overall system of canals and Hohokam cultural history. This focus led to ‘inferences and hypothesis concerning two subject of more importance than the mere physical details of Hohokam irrigation: first, its origins, and second, the nature of the social and economic system or systems that accompanied it’ (Woodbury 1961:553). Echoing some of the concerns of the Boasian anthropologists discussed earlier, his analysis concluded that there is no evidence to conclude whether Hohokam irrigation was diffused from central Mexico or whether it was a local development. The author then turned to the question of the ‘incipient “hydraulic society”’ (Woodbury 1961:556), thereby engaging in conversation with the seminal text that had been published by Wittfogel four years earlier. Evidence seemed to suggest that there was no system like ‘oriental despotism’ in Hohokam canal construction. With and with reference to the social organization of the Pima canals, the author warned against facile assumptions about the centralization of power. More evidence would be needed before such conclusions could be made.

Continuing the dialogue with Wittfogel, Orenstein (1965) raised the question on the role of irrigation when it is introduced into societies that are already politically unified. In rural India, the author observed, conflicts between farmers who own canal-irrigated land tend to arise periodically. Here, in the spirit of Steward, irrigation emerges as contingent upon both the cultural organization of water as well as the ecological conditions that govern water flow and soil quality. Writing in a way that anticipated Hardin’s discussion a few years later, Orenstein pointed out the social conflicts that arise due to ecological conditions, leading to greater social stratification as land and landless classes form.

Working in the Andean highlands, renowned for their complex pre-Columbian irrigation systems, Mitchell (1976) explored irrigation as both an adaptation to a particular highland environment and as a set of practices that are deeply entwined in the political and religious life of the community. Also engaging with the hydraulic theory of Wittfogel and Steward, Mitchell sought to redirect what he considered to be a misinterpretation from earlier critics. Instead of focusing on size, Mitchell suggested a focus on organization: ‘if irrigation is regulated centrally in arid or semiarid environments, then there is a corresponding increase in centralized political power in other areas of social life. The extent of political power varies directly with the extent of the irrigation system and its importance to the local economy’ (Mitchell 1976:25). In other words, he argued that the irrigation system is not an ‘independent variable’ for understanding power and state formation. The relevant variable for the new hydraulic hypothesis must exactly be ‘the way in which irrigation is organized by society’ (Mitchell 1976:39).

Other studies developed this line of inquiry about irrigation, while also bringing in other recent trends in anthropology. Seeking to understand both the widespread distribution of irrigation as well as the high degree of variation in practices in the Peruvian highlands, Trawick (2001) highlighted first the ethical dimension of water distribution, that is, how water is not only embedded in a particular institutional frameworks but also in particular moral worlds, a topic of interest at the time. Secondly, he traced the origins of this irrigation system and the solidary corporate community to late pre-Hispanic times. To the author, the findings have consequences for how we should think about water as implicated in both material and moral worlds. At the heart of ‘the Andean way of life’, irrigation and the moral economy of water is ‘a product of the unfolding of nature and culture together, of their mutual transformation’ (Trawick 2001:374). Water is therefore bound up with institutional arrangements as well as with cultural constructions and representations. While Trawick traced irrigation practices and cultural beliefs back to ancient times, his analysis also raised the question on how to understand institutional change, acknowledging that his case of Huaynacotas may in fact be exceptional in terms of cultural and institutional continuity. Drawing on field work in northern Spain, Guillet (2000) provided a different way of thinking about institutional change. The author observed two different property regimes of wells and water-lifting devices: a system of commons in the valley, and one of private rights on the high plains. Asking how different water management property regimes could emerge in this place at this time, Guillet suggested using ‘new institutional economics’ (NIE) where ‘property is a contractual relationship between agents who assign rights of exclusivity and transferability to specific resources’ (Guillet 2000:714), allowing analysis of the economic logic of particular forms of property. To this he added the ‘schema theory’ of Roy D’Andrade and others, an approach that emphasized cognitive dimensions of human psychology, much as earlier approaches had stressed emotion, personality and development. He used this schema theory to account for the interplay between cultural models (rather than mental models which have been used in NIE) and the political, economic and environmental forces that constrain the selection of a particular institutional set-up. Like Trawick, Guillet offered a historical analysis of the emergence of particular social arrangements around water, but the authors differ in their relative attention to economics and culture, as well as in their ethnographic scale.

Sheridan (2002) further explored the cultural embeddedness of irrigation and agriculture by highlighting symbolic correlations between human and agricultural fertility among the pre-colonial Pare in northern Tanzania. The author argued that features of the landscape such as irrigation systems are both symbolic and material forms of capital, forming part of the politics of maintaining age- and gender-based social difference in terms of labor and rights to resources. Irrigation practices therefore move well beyond technical issues, since they are seen as shaping both social relations and ideological systems, located ‘at the intersection of ecological and social processes’ (Sheridan 2002:79). Bureaucratic control of irrigated agriculture (Lees 1986) requires peasant farmers either to follow or to break the rules, that is, making ‘informal adjustments’ to established rules. Lees’ article discussed the effect of bureaucratic control and the associated informal adjustments in Israel, Kenya and Sudan. With a different gaze than the above articles, Lees showed how people navigate systems where equal access to water and land is secured but where farmers nonetheless have differentiated access to resources such as labor. Thus, in this study fairly equitable water access was located within an otherwise uneven social terrain in terms of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic relations. In order to procure water, farmer households must learn to maneuver the bureaucracy that surrounds large-scale state-led irrigation systems; these bureaucracies differ in their cultural embeddedness from the irrigation practices.

As a particular kind of engineering of the hydraulic landscape, the question about wet rice cultivation in Southeast Asia was taken up by Moore (1973) and Winzeler (1974), both commenting on an earlier article on peasant family structures and gender divisions of labor. Here the question about peasant social organization also becomes the question about water and the way in which women participate in the fields. It remains contested in these interventions how wet rice cultivation relates to gendered division of labor and to state formation and institutionalization. But the authors pinpointed how possible correlations may exist between particular forms of agricultural production, social organization, water management and emergent authorities. Later, Lansing (1987) explored Balinese water temples and their role in the cultural, religious and productive landscape. Challenging the dominant thesis that irrigation centralizes state power, Lansing found that the Balinese water temples constitute an institutional system parallel to the state. The historically stable institutional system of water temples—in contrast to the notoriously unstable traditional Balinese states—therefore provides not only the means for controlling water, but are also the producers of particular ecosystems that would not exist without them. This association sets wet rice cultivation apart from conventional irrigation. In Lansing and Kremer (1993), the reworking of the Balinese landscape through terracing and irrigation as well as the networks of shrines and temples was further studied through ecological modeling. The authors employed multi-level computer models to understand ‘complex adaptive systems.’, They argued that this particular kind of simulation modeling was well suited for understanding issues of adaptation and determinism in complex social systems, thus predating later concerns for what came to be called Socio-Ecological Systems.

Having thus moved from Wittfogel’s dominant elites, and the rise of the state by seeing the locus of control in small-scale communities with shared cultural meanings, the body of work from Southeast Asia suggests that cultural consensus—or at least shared meanings and cooperative rules—can be found in large-scale cases. The Balinese water temples, the complex irrigation systems and the particular patterns of production not only represent ways of dealing with issues of labor organization and resource sharing, but also introduce a new theme: ways of knowing water. In the following section we look further into aspects of environmental knowledge as it has been discussed in relation to water. The emphasis on knowledge, however, does not mean that the underlying interest in production is abandoned.

Environmental Knowledge

Knowing water, and more broadly knowing the environment, have long been matters of anthropological concern. Several properties of water—its ability to move, often across political boundaries; the many ways it can be used--make it an apt starting point for considering how different people conceptualize themselves and their worlds. Environmental knowledge thus moves beyond issues of physics and technology to consider realms of experience, cultural landscapes and identity.

A number of AA articles derive from anthropological interest in the Icelandic folk model of the ‘skipper effect.’ They raise related to a seminal article by Barth on the social dynamics of a Norwegian fishing vessel, and seek to understand whether the success of a fishing boat can best be understood as a function of the knowledge and skill of the skipper or the material conditions of the boat and the availability of fish, that is, ecology and technology. Partly through statistical analysis, Palsson and Durrenberger (1990) questioned the ‘skipper effect’ as an explanatory model, and highlighted instead the necessary distinction between statistical and sociological reality. They suggested that neither the skipper nor the success in fishing were universals, and care should therefore be taken in comparative studies. In a reply, White (1992) was critical of their conclusions, pointing to ‘differential skill’ among shrimp fishermen off the Alabama coast. While also appreciating the emphasis on technology, Bjarnason and Thorlindsson (1993) were likewise critical of the conclusions reached by Palsson and Durrenberger. The authors suggested that ‘collective knowledge, the folk science of fishing, forms the basis of individual expertise and needs to be taken into account in the empirical analysis of fishing success’ (Bjarnason and Thorlindsson 1993:373). Thus, the debate on the skipper effect takes us from questions of common resource management and authenticity of folk models into questions about knowledge, skill and expertise.

Fishing is a form of resource extraction that requires intimate knowledge of the environment. Temperature, currents and a variety of other factors influence the presence and abundance of fish and other marine creatures. Be it industrial fishing or more traditional ways of sustaining life from the sea, fishers must know how to move about vast oceans or smaller bodies of water. In scrutinizing what makes up a good skipper in Iceland, Palsson and Nelgason (1998) compared formal schooling with the development of embodied knowledge. They found that while schooling is important in the formation of skippers, it is through the practical engagement with the environment that they develop crucial skills for successful fishing. Suggesting a new paradigm for fisheries management, Acheson and Wilson (1996) argued that one must understand how fish populations are governed not through simple quantitative models of population based on linear equations, the framework that most quota legislation is built upon, but on non-linear, chaotic formations where a large number of factors and the sensitivity to initial conditions affect the availability of fish. Through a review of ethnographic studies on fisheries they suggested that efficient management of marine resources must be predicated upon an intimate knowledge of particular places and therefore on how and where fishing is carried out rather than simply on the total amount of fish in a large area. As discussed in the previous section, fishing is also linked to consumption preferences, environmental knowledge, and available technologies. Recently Paolisso (2007) discussed how patterns of production and consumption of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic coast of the United States have changed over time. A highly valued food as well as a marker of regional identity, the crab as a particular species, kind of production and food item has been challenged by the insertion of the region into the global economy, which has led the flavorful local crabs to be replaced by cheaper Asian crab meat. This has led to a revaluation of the crab in which ‘it is no longer the labor, knowledge and practices of the commercial watermen but, rather, the preparation and processing of crabs that now constitutes the Chesapeake’s value’ (Paolisso 2007:664). The shifting meanings of production and consumption of crabmeat illuminates how knowledge about the environment can change over time, and therefore how water and its resources may be resituated in different socio-economic contexts.

Moving from industrial fishing to a different kind of knowledge of the marine resources, Lauer and Aswani (2009) used the case of fishers in the Solomon Islands to discuss the epistemological implications of ‘indigenous knowledge’. Sharing a number of elements with Acheson and Wilson’s discussion of the Maine lobster fishermen, Lauer and Aswani argued that knowledge about the environment cannot be separated from the everyday activities in which the fishermen engage with the ocean. This, in turn, has consequences for how to understand knowledge as ‘situated practices’ and the role it plays in the conservation of marine resources. Garcia-Quijano (2007) made a similar point on local fishers’ ecological knowledge of marine species in his research report from southeastern Puerto Rico, raising the question of how to make use of different knowledge systems in ecosystems management and conservation. Also concerned with other kinds of knowing, Runk (2009) was interested in the complex interactions between forest-focused conservation and the ‘river-networked rhizomic cosmos’ of the Wounaan of Panama. The author argued that indigenous groups and conservation practitioners ‘translate’ the same landscape in accordance with their cosmologies. To the former, the landscape consists of trees and forest; to the latter it is a dynamic and inter-relational whole in which bonds link human groups and rivers. Rivers are part of the underlying composition of the Wounaan world, and social networks, cosmos and landscape are ‘mapped onto rhizomic river systems’ (Runk 2009:459). Showing how anthropology has moved in recent years to a consideration of ‘thinking with water’—drawing upon water as a constitutive element in the universe-- Runk wrote that ‘Rather than binary potentials, the network offers connections and multiplicities of movement. It is the fluidity of water – its movement and flow, its transmutability and potentially surprising, contradictory nature – that allow it to be both a metaphor for social networks and a means for perceiving them spatially (Runk 2009:463).

Approaches such as Runk’s link knowledge to politics, and highlight a very different way from the earlier approaches on how water can be linked to uneven relations of power. Conservation efforts therefore become entangled with particular views of values and goals of biodiversity and ecosystems. Roseman (1998) discussed the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia and their struggle over landscape in a world of rapid change. Concerned with the relationship between forms of mapping and property, the article addressed about the rainforest as a particular place. It showed how non-literate forest people use songs as a way of mapping and knowing their territories. It discussed a spirit, Mother Fluid Beauty, who appears in dreams, to show which streams and ridges belong to social groups. The connection between land and water in terms of cultural identity and post-colonial social struggles is also present in Willow (2011), who explored a long-term roadblock to confront the encroachment of loggers on an indigenous landscape in northern Ontario. Again, water is not the subject matter, but rather a central feature of the cultural and productive landscape. The intertwining of terrestrial and aquatic worlds in Ontario and beyond highlight the importance of water not only as a resource but also as generative of identities. Willow engaged in recent concerns within anthropology for ontology rather than epistemology, no longer locating debates over water as questions of contested resources, but rather seeing them as encounters of different cultural frameworks and values.

These articles highlight how water is being inscribed into political contexts of poverty and social struggle. They show a different kind of anthropological engagement with the people who are being studied, and a different focus on water--as constitutive of human cultures and societies, rather than as context for them. A focus of these newer articles is knowing water as everyday practice and discourse: where to find water, how to move it, what to do with excess and scarcity, and what place it has in local worlds. Different forms of knowing the same bodies of water emerge in these studies. Compared to earlier ethnological studies of water and place, there is a growing sensitivity to the sensory and embodied forms of knowledge that come to constitute local worlds. It has been a long journey from the early studies of linguistic particularities of aquatic place-names to recent work on multi-faceted and contested engagements with watery landscapes.

Disaster and climate

Up to this point in our review, water has been a source of life and power, a part of the environment, an inherent part of the worlds that people inhabit. But water is also something that people invest vast amounts of energy in controlling. The studies of irrigation, hydropower, skill and knowledge show, in different ways, how the control of water relates to the control of people and place. In this final section we will look further into unruly waters and what happens when watery absences and presences are beyond political, scientific and social control. In the previous section, to Willow water was an integral part of cultural worlds in which it was seen as a stable object of knowledge. The studies of disaster and climate moves to the limits of water knowledge as water as becomes unstable and unpredictable, and the capacity of water to surprise, to unsettle forms of knowledge and to instigate multiple narratives and courses of action. AA has had a number of papers on disaster, broadly sharing the trend in anthropology to consider water as a more dynamic, autonomous agent. The violence of water united with other forces became evident in the aftermath of the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in New Orleans in 2005, which spurred a number of AA articles. In her personal narrative, Peña (2006) was searching for the displaced members of the African American community of historical Fazendeville among whom she conducted a project on ethnohistory. Central to her was the symbolic change of the ‘Wade in the Water’ hymn, where water cleanses the mind, conveying hope, redemption and salvation, to the all too literal reality of wading in water in the aftermath of a hurricane, where water symbolizes death, doubt and destruction. The cultural landscape has thus been transformed by the violence of hurricanes, and the deep history of Fazendeville has been disrupted.

As Jackson (2006) also highlighted for the community of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the African American community have suffered multiple displacements from both government and nature. Jackson explored how people react to forced displacement, be it by floods, hurricanes or government initiative. She argued that for the relocated residents and descendants of Fazendeville, vernacular networks of sociality, spirituality and traditionality were crucial in the maintenance of cultural identity. Like Peña, Jackson had an ethical agenda as well, wishing to make marginal people visible in the reconstruction of New Orleans. Ethridge (2006) participated in the relief work after Katrina and Rita among poor white people in Mississippi’s coastal counties. In his critique of disaster aid and the assumptions about the survivors that it entails, he reminded us that the questions about race and poverty raised by Katrina demands very complex answers. In either case, the destructive force of water and wind permeates and infiltrates social, material and political relations.

Colten (2006) examined the relationship of vulnerability of minority and low-income populations to local environmental conditions. The brief article is an extension of the debates on vulnerability as shaped by both bio-physical and social systems as it discussed the uneven distribution of risk across New Orleans. Located below sea level, New Orleans is an engineered city that has long sought to combat the ocean, rivers and marshes. While topographic vulnerability largely cut across lines of poverty and race, the means for coping with it—exemplified by the mobility hinging on car ownership—was unevenly distributed, with the urban poor suffering the greatest losses. Austin (2006) broadened the view to the entire Louisiana coastline. The dynamic landscape has both been the subject to extensive engineering efforts and extraction of petroleum as well a serving as a refuge for exiled populations. Colten explored how Katrina and other recent hurricanes accentuated the environmental and community degradation of the American South, and thus the relationship between this region and the rest of the United States.

Offshore, the Louisiana oyster industry suffered from the 2005 storms (McGuire 2006). When this historically resilient industry, shaped by ecology, economics, politics, bureaucratic agendas, and consumer psychologies, was hit by first Katrina and then Rita, the nested contingencies influencing the trajectory of the oyster fishing activities became evident: the oyster industry needed New Orleans ‘to be shored up, repopulated and reinvigorated’ (McGuire 2006:701). In different ways, the articles on Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent disasters examined water in different ways, though always showing the interaction of physical, social and cultural forces. The impacts of the hurricanes were unevenly distributed not just because water and winds acted differently, but also because the social and political terrains impacted were so varied. The 2005 hurricanes were a stark reminder of the internal peripheries of the United States, and of the lack of political will to address the entwinement of social and environmental degradation of the Gulf shores, where a sudden, violent outburst of wind and water brought the consequences of long- term coastal erosion and short-sighted water management into clear view. . These articles do not only show the adoption of new topics of inquiry by anthropologists; they demonstrate a different understanding of the journal AA—and by extension of anthropology—as directly engaged with public debates over major issues. In this sense, the audiences of the anthropological discussions are being widened, and water plays a role in promoting this move.

Recently, the dramatic and yet slow changes in the environment has entered anthropological thought in more explicit ways. The question of vulnerability addressed in the Katrina articles was taken up by both Vasquez-Leon (2009) in Arizona and Nelson and Finan (2009) in northeast Brazil, both working in contexts of drought. Vasquez-Leon, who conducted research among Hispanic farmers and farmworkers, was preoccupied with how vulnerability and risk emerge in the intersection between a natural phenomenon, drought, and social factors, such as ethnicity, class, literacy, mobility and nationality. From a perspective of social capital, Vasquez-Leon sought to understand how a vulnerable group, Hispanic farmers, managed risk through gaining access to resources via informal networks. This finding has implications the building of resilience and for policy-making.

Nelson and Finan explored the role of government intervention in drought-ridden northeast Brazil. In this region, high mortality rates, particularly in drought years, have been replaced by an institutionalized adaptation that has led to the experience that drought actually stabilizes food and income supply for poor people in an otherwise unstable life situation. The emergence of patronage in drought relief may actually undermine choice and agency, that is, local resilience, and the authors aptly identify how adaptation policies must build on capacity investment and strategies that allow people to escape poverty and clientilism rather than enforcing them. Here, we see different faces of water: in the hurricane, suddenly overabundant; in the droughts, slowly scarce, but in both cases, only partly knowable. Water is, indeed, destructive as well as productive.

Open Waters: A conclusion

Water as an object of anthropological concern has shifted over the long history of the journal, reflecting general trends within the discipline. Water as a separator and a connector, imbued with symbolisms and power, defining areas and landscapes and acting as a generator of thought and concepts brings us back to Helmreich. Rereading the articles on water that have been published in AA for a span of more than a century gives a view on how the discipline has constituted its subject. Water is therefore placed differently in different places; the streams of the Cheyenne are conceptually and methodologically different from the polluted rivers of Hungary.

We note how water has shifted place in the studies we reviewed from being the site of cultural practices to being an object in itself worthy of anthropological analyses. Three transversal thematic shifts within this general disciplinary view are critical, both for our understanding of water and for our understanding of anthropology.

First, the anthropological focus on knowledge has been changing. In the first pieces on water, water was simply part of the contextual backdrop of human culture, while in later works, water was considered as an object of knowledge. The most recent papers cited in this review increasingly deal with instances in which water exceeds knowability. Some even question whether anthropologists can confidently define water as a single object of knowledge that can be known in different ways by different groups; they suggest an alternative, examining the ontology and agency of water—seeing water as an element that produces and is produced by social worlds which include human and non-human actors.

Second, we see a shift in the way that power has been conceptualized and on the role that power has played in the constitution of human society. The first papers hardly dealt with the issue of power, and presented water as moving freely through cultural landscapes. The debates on irrigation, state formation and the concentration of power reveal a view on water as reflecting or even constituting a stable power within societies, that is, a power that is possessed by certain actors. Later studies increasingly focus on water as contested and an object of social struggles, in which water not only is the object of power but, indeed, generative of power.

Lastly, in terms of the positioning of the authors in relation to their subject matter, the articles generally show a trend. Researchers began with a perspective of unquestioned objectivity, moved to greater reflexivity and then adopted a stance of engagement. In other words, the early papers are confident in their role as collectors of cultural artifacts, much like working in the logic of an ethnology department within a natural history museum. Later papers generally tend to show more support for subordinate peoples and their struggles against oppressive social structures, while the most recent papers increasingly see water as an occasion for anthropological engagement in which the anthropologist witnesses, observes and reports social injustices. Again, this may be linked to the opening up of the anthropological audience that we observe in the articles on Hurricane Katrina.

These observations on the shifts of the anthropological engagement with power, knowledge and its human subjects are not limited to studies on water, but may apply to anthropology more broadly. But due to its simplicity, its universality and its fundamental role in the sustenance of life itself, water shows these trends strongly, linking matters of cultural worlds to science and wellbeing. In an early attempt to address the role of anthropology, Mead (1943) raised a similar kind of question in her brief, but thoughtful piece on island societies. Here water as ocean sets certain populations apart and also places them in relation to each other. Facing the question of the priorities of anthropology in a changing world, Mead adopted what she called “small South Sea cultures” as exemplars of a world in motion and of the dangers of emergent forms of marginalization. It is the ocean that defines their remoteness and constitutes their isolation in an ‘increasingly interconnected and constricted world’ (Mead 1943:193). But, we add, it is also the water that makes up their world.

In this introduction to a selection on water-related articles published in AA since 1893 to 2013, the view across decades and themes presented show the richness of the anthropological insights and methods. The increasing interest in water in AA, and anthropology more generally, reflect a growing sense of urgency in a world in which water is critical. It is often the very movement of water, its excess and scarcity, which is used as indexes of climate change. But as these articles show, in quite different ways, that there is no such thing as free-flowing water. Thus, there is a need for understanding the changing climate and the ways it infiltrates social worlds. This need brings an urgent task to anthropology: understanding how people across the globe live in worlds of water.

1. Strang, Veronica (2005) Common Senses: Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of Meaning. Journal of Material Culture 10(1): 92-120
2. Wittfogel, Karl (1957) Oriental Despotism; a Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale University Press
3. Hardin, Garret (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons, in Science 162, 3858: 1243-1248
4. Ostrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Read the articles


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Arnold, J. E.,1995 Transportation Innovation and Social Complexity among Maritime Hunter-Gatherer Societies. American Anthropologist 97(4):733-747.

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Vasquez-Leon, Marcela, 2009 Hispanic Farmers and Farmworkers: Social Networks, Institutional Exclusion, and Climate Vulnerability in Southeastern Arizona American Anthropologist 111(3):289-301.

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