Humans and Water, Past to Present

Activity Source: 

Adapted with permission by Archaeological Institute of America.

Humans use lots of water. We need it for various activities, including agriculture, transport, washing, and recreation. Most important, we need to drink fresh water to stay alive. Today, in many regions around the world, fresh water comes straight to where we need it. But in some places, people must carry gallons of water from the closest stream, river, lake, or well to their homes.

Access to water and the ability to move water from its source to where it is needed are important considerations for any groups making decisions about where they should build their homes and cities. This was also true in the past. Ancient villages, towns, and cities were located near fresh water sources like rivers, lakes, and oases. In addition, people often built reservoirs and tanks to collect rainwater.

Archaeologists find the remains of various past water movement systems. These include canals, pipes, sewers, wells, and ─ perhaps most spectacular ─ aqueducts. The word “aqueduct” is derived from the Latin words aqua, meaning “water,” and ducere, meaning “to lead.” Engineered by ancient Greeks and perfected by the Romans, aqueducts transported water downhill along channels from fresh water sources to cities miles below. On its journey from source to city, water flowed through tunnels, across channels supported by walls and arches, through trenches and pressurized pipes.

Today, two-thirds of American drinking water comes from rivers and streams. Water goes to a plant where it is treated, tested, and purified to ensure it is clean enough to drink. Then it travels though underground pipes to homes, schools, and businesses.


  1. Do you know that the average American family today uses about 100 gallons of water per person per day? Assuming that your family uses an average amount, calculate how many gallons you would need each week, month, and year.
  2. In addition to drinking, make a list of other things you or your family need water for.
  3. Identify some older cities in your state, and use a map to find how many of them are located near major sources of fresh water such as rivers and lakes.
  4. Use the internet to research aqueducts. Check out and Compare and contrast your local water supply system to ancient aqueducts. What is the source of your community’s supply? Is the water to your house supplied publicly (by a utility company) or privately (by a well)? How far away is your local water source? Who manages water treatment? What is the process? What information is available about water quality testing and monitoring? Does your community safeguard your water sources (such as through watershed management or protection programs)?

Bonus activity: Build your own aqueduct. Research aqueducts and experiment with designing your own! Teacher resource:

NGSS 3-D Learning

  • Science and Engineering Practices ─ Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas ─ Earth and Human Activity
  • Crosscutting Concepts ─ Energy and Matter