The Plant That Changed the World
From Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars
Every schoolchild knows about papyrus: the Egyptians invented it as the precursor to modern day paper; Moses' floating crib in the bullrushes; Thor Heyerdahl's "Kontiki" expeditions, proving that the ancients' papyrus vessels could have traversed the oceans. But, it turns out, we don't know the half of it. According to author and ecologist John Gaudet, apparently the world's most passionate advocate of the plant, it was the basis of the most vital man/plant relationship in human history and the most important factor in the shaping of modern civilization.
Papyrus: The Plant That Changed the World is part scholarly history, part treatise in economic and historical botany, part anthropological travelog and part how-to guide. It is also an impassioned plea for the conservation of the world's diminishing wetlands. Want to know how to make papyrus paper or a papyrus boat? Look no further.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of the role papyrus played in the economy of ancient Egypt and the everyday lives of its people. "The earliest boats, houses and temples were made from the stems of papyrus," he writes.
Papyrus rope was used to move monuments, build pyramids, and craft items around the house. The fish they ate were nursed by the swamps; the wild birds they captured wintered in the swamps. If all else failed, they could use papyrus as fuel to cook with, and if they were hungry they could eat it, and when they died they went by papyrus boat to their heaven: the greatest papyrus swamp of all, the Field of Reeds.
And then, of course, there was the paper.
Ancient Egyptians discovered that when you peeled papyrus stems, then dampened and cut the interior pith into strips
then cross-laid them with other strips, the mat held together as a sheet once the water was pressed out. This gave the Western world its predominant writing material: The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the guide to the afterlife, was printed on papyrus, as were the overwhelming majority of Bibles and everything from shopkeepers' bills to Roman government documents. It was used from as early as 3,000 B.C. to the 10th century --- a span of 4,000 years.
In later years, Egyptian rule gave way and from 30 B.C. to 640 A.D. the Romans took over management of the industry, which went on to supply the whole of the Roman Empire with scrolls and sheets. One Roman statesman, Cassiodorus, openly admitted that he did not know how the civilized Western world had got on without it, since by his day it was used for books, records of business, correspondence, orders of the day for the Roman army, even the first newspaper, the Acta Diurna. Originally carved on stone, it was later written on papyrus paper. This was, of course, far easier to carry around.
Failure of the Egyptian papyrus crop could mean to the Roman world a paralysis of commerce and affairs of state, and suspension of work for innumerable scribes who carried on the enormous labor of transcription.
So, whoever controlled Egypt controlled the medium of choice, and it was big business, employing thousands of people, some highly specialized for the different branches of the industry: cultivating and harvesting the plant, transporting the raw material to the factory, fabrication, sale, and shipment of the finished product.
Egypt's papyrus, a member of the water-loving sedge family, is among the fastest growing, most productive plants on earth. It shoots up to an imposing 15 feet, its slender stalk topped with bushy umbels and a feathery plume. Under the hot sun and cloudless skies of old Egypt, it prospered in the ancient swamps, which were millions of acres in size. The availability of cheap materials for boat building gave rise to a vigorous fishing sector and to widespread navigation, exploration and trade.
Despite its enormous achievements, the economy remained rooted in agriculture. It was the everyday business of the ancient Egyptians to produce food:
"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." Again, thanks in large part to the noble papyrus.
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.
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Today papyrus is almost nonexistent in Egypt. And it is not coincidental that the present day River Nile is one of the most polluted waterways in the world, choked with sewage from scores of towns and hundreds of villages. Ironically Papyrus swamps are being considered as a solution. In the modern world its greatest benefit may be as a natural water treatment plant. According to Gaudet papyrus swamps represent a low-cost filter system because water ceases to move in a swamp. Sediment and heavy pollutants settle at the swamp bottom, decreasing erosion and maintaining a healthy habitat for native fish, local and migratory birds and other animals.
Describing various regions of Africa where papyrus swamps still exist, Gaudet explains their efficacy in keeping water clean, their potential to ameliorate pollution, all within the contextual politics of water use. Along the Nile River, at Lake Tanganyika and environs, and further south on the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers, Gaudet touts the potential of papyrus to contribute to solutions for the ever-increasing "water wars" (in which countries divert water for their own use, often leaving their neighbors desperate for a resource once shared. Papyrus-the-peacemaker!)
Gaudet also writes about water stressors from climate change, industry, urbanization and nutrient flushes that cause the growth of invasive plants and algae. One example is the draining of Kenya's Lake Naivasha to irrigate commercially-grown roses, an innocuous-sounding endeavor that has overwhelmed the region's resources and created serious problems for surrounding communities.
Draining swamps to create agricultural land and building dams to provide water for modern development might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but Gaudet shows how it has resulted in environmental disasters and degradation from Egypt to Sudan, from the Congo to the Middle East.
"Why, if wetlands are so valuable in their natural state, are they being eliminated at such a rapid rate?" is the key question. The answer to this paradox is that although wetlands serve society in multiple ways, the nature of wetland benefits are such that the owners of wetlands cannot usually capture the benefits for their own use or sale."
The flood protection benefits accrue to others downstream. The fish and wildlife that breed and inhabit the wetlands migrate, and are captured or enjoyed by others. The groundwater recharge and sediment trapping benefits cannot be commercially exploited. For the owner of a wetland to benefit from his resource, he often has to alter it, convert it, and develop it. That is why, despite their value, wetlands are being eliminated.
His final warning is stark: "In Africa, an ecological time bomb is about to go off, with agricultural, domestic and sewage pollution along the Nile and in the Central African Lakes." He suggests that re-introducing papyrus swamps is perhaps the best chance to head this off.
Papyrus is informative and insightful. Our only criticism would be about the writing itself: it's a tad, uh, pedestrian? As he takes us along on his many expeditions and explorations, I wish he could have zinged us with a little more pizzazz.