The rivers of civilization

Mark Macklin, John Lewin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

140 Citations (SciVal)


The hydromorphic regimes that underpinned Old World river-based civilizations are reviewed in light of recent research. Notable Holocene climatic changes varied from region to region, whilst the dynamics of floodplain environments were equally diverse, with river channel changes significantly affecting human settlement. There were longer-term trends in Holocene hydroclimate and multi-centennial length ‘flood-rich’ and ‘flood-poor’ episodes. These impacted on five identified flooding and settlement scenarios: (i) alluvial fans and aprons; (ii) laterally mobile rivers; (iii) rivers with well-developed levees and flood basins; (iv) river systems characterised by avulsions and floodouts; and (v) large river-fed wetlands. This gave a range of changes that were either more or less regular or incremental from year-to-year (and thus potentially manageable) or catastrophic. The latter might be sudden during a flood event or a few seasons (acute), or over longer periods extending over many decades or even centuries (chronic). The geomorphic and environmental impacts of these events on riparian societies were very often irreversible. Contrasts are made between allogenic and autogenic mechanism for imposing environmental stress on riverine communities and a distinction is made between channel avulsion and contraction responses. Floods, droughts and river channel changes can precondition as well as trigger environmental crises and societal collapse. The Nile system currently offers the best set of independently dated Holocene fluvial and archaeological records, and the contrasted effects of changing hydromorphological regimes on floodwater farming are examined. The persistence of civilizations depended essentially on the societies that maintained them, but they were also understandably resilient in some environments (Pharaonic Egypt in the Egyptian Nile), appear to have had more limited windows of opportunity in others (the Kerma Kingdom in the Nubian Nile), or required settlement mobility or exceptional engineering response (Huang He, Mesopotamia) to accommodate problems such as river avulsion, desiccation or local salinization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)228-244
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Early online date13 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2015


  • civilizations
  • rivers
  • floodplains
  • climate
  • geomorphology
  • palaeohydrology
  • channel contraction
  • avulsion


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