Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

How did Native people purify water

  1. Feb 24, 2009 #1
    How did native people (anywhere around the world) purify water? It got me interested, since they wouldn't of had much in the way of compounds for purification or at least to destroy pathogens, how did they deal with these problems (from a chemistry stand point)?

    Its very weird how questions can just pop into your head randomly without any explination,
    Thanks for your time!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 24, 2009 #2

    mgb_phys

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    They didn't - notice how they are all dead?
    The successful ones drank beer or tea.

    If you have a low enough population density, don't live in towns, don't farm cattle and don't drink the water downstream from too many beavers - it's not as much of a problem
     
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2009
  4. Feb 25, 2009 #3
    I saw a t.v. show where they had native people boiling water. they woud put large leafs or ferns (not sure what kind of plant) over the boiling water and the evaporating water would collect on the leaves, thus making pure water.
     
  5. Feb 25, 2009 #4

    mgb_phys

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Then they would probably starve to death.
    The time and effort needed to collect enough fuel to distill all the water you would need to drink would massively outnumber the hours you spend collecting food.

    Generally water from deep wells and springs is perfectly safe, how much extra do you pay for bottles of untreated spring water?

    The big water born diseases (cholera, typhoid etc) need a large population to support an epidemic, so once you have towns and especially once you have animals - it does make sense to boil water. Which is why you only drink things that must have boiled, like tea or beer. But this relies on having fuel sources on an small industrial scale.
     
  6. Feb 25, 2009 #5
    It is because of this, many believe, brewing beer or tea started. Boiling the water sanitize/sterilized it, add some plant parts for some flavor.

    Some abbeys, specifically Trappist, started the tradition of brewing beer as a way to give something back to the community they were a part of. Brewing beer provided a sanitary drink.
     
  7. Feb 25, 2009 #6

    mgb_phys

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Most people drank 'small beer' a weak low alcohol beer from the second boiling of the mash - although boiling purifies the water it didn't have enough alcholo content to keep it pure.
    Hence the famous gravestone:

    Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
    Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer,
    Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
    And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all.
     
  8. Feb 26, 2009 #7
    I agree.

    Also the term "native people" is too broad to justify an answer. You could direct your question to the Mississippian period of south eastern native american prehistory. During this period populations were flourishing. This culture relied heavily on agriculture and not domesticated animals (as in Eurasia). During this time you will probably find no evidence of water purification not because it didn't exist, but because this sort of mechanism would not be preserved. Personally I highly doubt the MIssissippians were using any sort of H2O purification. If people got sick it wouldn't have been blamed on the water.

    I've hiked 300 miles, only purified my water a few times. No problem. Of course springs were available and I was at a higher altitude than any significant sized populations. Risk of giardia http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/parasites/Giardiasis/factsht_giardia.htm" [Broken] is small. If you get giardia (from human/animal feces) symptoms will include explosive diarrhea and possible dehydration. It's not life threatening in most cases.

    There are other means of obtaining safe drinking water on the periphery of stagnant sources. Simply dig into the water table next to the source. The water will be filtered naturally through the soils and sand... in most scenarios (method may not work around a swamp for instance).

    Rainwater is also a safe source if captured correctly.

    Is there a natural source of iodine or chlorine? If so could be some answers there on pre-historical/historical water treatment.

    If egalitarian societies used any of these methods, I am unsure.

    Sorry I could not find a way to link chemistry to this question.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  9. Feb 26, 2009 #8

    mgb_phys

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    The only historical chemical purification is probably silver.
    Silver is a very good anti-<anything nasty> agent.
    Certainly silver water jugs were known to be healthier in at least ancient Greek times and there are mediaeval arabic silver filters for drinking vessels.
     
  10. Feb 26, 2009 #9
    could you explain or describe silver filters? Thanks :D
     
  11. Feb 26, 2009 #10

    chemisttree

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    There are http://www.historyofwaterfilters.com/early-water-treatment.html" [Broken]
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  12. Feb 26, 2009 #11

    mgb_phys

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    The ones I say were basically just tea strainer type lids for drinking water jugs.
    They probably weren't that effective. But if you knew silver jugs worked and you couldn't afford that much silver then I suppose it's better than nothing.
     
  13. Feb 26, 2009 #12

    turbo

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Indians traditionally possessed silver drinking vessels to give "charitable" drinks of water to "untouchables", in the belief that the "untouchables" could not contaminate silver mugs, etc, by touching them or drinking from them. Sad.
     
  14. Feb 26, 2009 #13
    "Even early American settlers would place a silver dollar in milk to retard spoiling before refrigeration was available."

    http://www.ultrasilver.com/history.shtml" [Broken]

    not natives or water, but a cool concept.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  15. Apr 10, 2009 #14
    That is a good question. I would guess that natives were more resistant to microbial contaminants found in drinking water. Therefore, they probably didn't need to purify water.
    Sorry, nothing from the chemistry standpoint from me.
     
  16. Apr 10, 2009 #15

    fluidistic

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    When I made a trip to Peru in 2005, there was no potable water. People didn't drink water coming directly from the tap but rather they make it boil maybe for 15 minutes, I don't remember exactly. They told me they were going to catch cholera from it if they drink it. I drunk water from the tap a couple of times because I was alone and with nothing to make it boil. I got some problems for a week but I recovered well.
    I didn't go to any hotel but to some very poor houses but I'm pretty sure that potable water in the whole country is a luxe. The same apply for hot water. (they take cold shower)
    EDIT: Looking in wikipedia, Peru is indeed in the list of countries affected by cholera : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Distribution_of_the_cholera.PNG.
    I don't think Peruvian people are much more resistant to microbes than people from more industrialized countries.
     
  17. Apr 10, 2009 #16

    mgb_phys

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Not really, you do pick up some antibodies to local nasties form your mothers milk but you don't inherit microbial resistance as such.
    Native people probably did suffer from many water borne diseases, just as they do in parts of sub-saharan africa today. But most diseases don't develop into epidemics if the population density is at the village level.
    Remember nature doesn't care how many parasites you die with, as long as you managed to reproduce first.
     
  18. Apr 10, 2009 #17
    thank you all for responding to my post, this is the first time that i've had an email sent through telling me i've had a responce since the first responce - which i found weird.

    i had seen anti-microbial metal information before but not too sure if any natives of any country would have used it for the purposes of potability. You guys make a good point about resistances to bacteria.

    it just seems a shame that what they knew/know is practaiclly lost to the scientific community
     
  19. Apr 11, 2009 #18

    arildno

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Why should they have any need of purifying water??

    Are you aware that Norwegians to this day mainly drink unpurified water since there is no need to purify it?
     
  20. Apr 11, 2009 #19
    you miss my point
    iam just interested to know if any native did/do purify water and, if so, how. Not if every native people in the world purifies their water.
     
  21. Apr 17, 2009 #20
    I don't know so much about purification, but I do know that a lot of times, villages were careful about only drinking up stream of where they cleaned and did other things in the water, and were careful not to bury thier dead near the rivers. This didn't do much about stuff coming from upstream, but it did stop the nearest sources of contamination.

    Also, I remeber learning in my economic history class about how Persians in the height of the empires power would used aquaducts with crude filtering inside of them to get water to the cities.
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook