The idea of fleeing to the water to escape some kind of danger is familiar to many creatures. Beavers, ducks, iguanas, but humans too. You may think that building a city on the water is a crazy and novel idea, but it has actually been done before, many times in fact, and each time with varying levels of success. But as a general rule, water based societies were usually more successful than their land-bound counterparts. This week we will explore the legacy of the Venetian Republic, the Aztec Empire, and the Uros tribe which tried to escape the Incan Empire, and next week we will look at the South East Asian floating civilizations.

Republic of Venice

In the early 5th century the Roman Empire was in turmoil. It was being besieged on all sides by the Huns, the Germans, and many other invading tribes that were mass migrating into Europe. The Roman people, at that time subjected to harsh anti-sword restrictions, had no cohesive government force to keep them safe from the constant raids. To escape the danger, many fled to an island in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. That island was called Venice. Not long after, the island began operating autonomously, acting with legal distinction from the rest of the Empire. After the Empire fell into another civil war and the East continued to break from the West, Venice decided to side with Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Making this decision not only allowed them more political autonomy (because Constantinople was so much further away) but also allowed them to access trade in the East, while simultaneously being able to sell their wares in the West. Venice was soon importing spice, glass, porcelain, and other valuables from Anatolia and the Middle East, and selling them in Europe for a significant profit. Thanks to its lower regulation environment and lack of rigid government controls on trade and everyday life, Venice became the world’s first financial hub, and one of the richest cities in Medieval Europe.

The Republic of Venice was able to do this so successfully in part because it was located in a lagoon. This lagoon offered several advantages. Firstly, it allowed a very large safe harbor area for ships. During the Middle Ages Venice fielded over 3,300 ships with over 36,000 sailors, making it the premier maritime power, much stronger in the sea than most nations at the time. This lagoon also formed an enormous moat around the city making it nearly impenetrable, during a time when moats were one of the best ways to keep invaders out. Not only was the city surrounded by water, but in between every group of buildings were navigable canals separating it with even more water, and later the city was built out into neighboring islands spreading it out even more. By the early 9th century when Charlemagne’s son, Pepin, laid siege to the city in an attempt to conquer it. His army was instead ravaged by disease, unable to enter, starved of resources, the invaders quickly tired and were unable to make inroads to the island city. So bad were the swamp diseases, that Pepin himself eventually died from them. The invaders went home empty handed, and the Venetians escaped entirely unscathed. For the next 600 years Venice would continue to trade in the Mediterranean and grow its economy, at times nearly triple the rate of surrounding land nations.

In its later years Venice was also besieged by the Ottoman Empire and managed to hold out, but lost many of its overseas territories. After Portugal discovered a new way to trade with the Far East by going around Africa, Venice began to decline in terms of trade importance, and it’s economy slowly waned.

Today when you visit Venice you will find a city built out of marble, slowly sinking beneath the waves. After it was finally conquered by Napoleon the city was passed back and forth between Austria and Italy in the aftermath, but by this time it had already fallen so far behind economically it was no longer able to stand up against powerful land based empires. Venice is no longer the wealthy center of trade it once was, and is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, struggling to just maintain the ancient buildings that have sat in the lagoon for centuries. But the story that Venice tells us is important. It shows us that people willing to move to seek freedom will find it, and that an independent city-state with local governance ended up being run far more efficiently than the sprawling empires that laid across the continent of Europe. The people who originally fled to the lagoon to escape invaders, ended up prospering generations down the line, far more than those who were able to defend themselves on land.

The Aztec Empire

The Roman Empire originally formed around trade in the Mediterranean, and the Chinese Empire likewise took shape by sending ships to exact tribute from overseas territories. This is a common theme in early human civilization, for some reason, the existence of a central body of water leads to higher population densities and more wealth creation. This was also the case with the society that gave rise to the early Aztec Empire.

The Aztec Empire should be one civilization that makes our list of floating societies, because the Aztecs started off as island dwelling people after they were forced to move to the middle of a lake after losing a military conflict with another tribe. After staying on an island in this lake for generations, the Aztec grew strong enough to conquer the surrounding tribes at the coasts of the lake and form the Aztec Empire. They built floating bridges to reach shore, and large floating farms to feed their enormous population. Due to the rich soil dredged up from the lake, the productivity of these farms was far higher than standard farmland which could be found in the area. The Aztec Empire quickly spread over land and expanded into most of modern Mexico, making the Aztecs perhaps comparatively the most successful water based civilization, but also the most warlike. A key takeaway from these historical facts, is how most highly developed regions of early human civilization formed around seas and large lakes, this is likely because they facilitated easy trade while keeping people separate enough that they didn’t feel the need to fight over space.

Here we can see a cormorant tethered to a floating island which is the home of one Uros family. This is the only place in the world where cormorants have been domesticated to catch fish for their owners.

The Uros Tribes

The Uros, by comparison to the Aztecs, have been a far more peace loving and non-confrontational group. The Uros Tribes live, and have lived for over 500 years, in Lake Titicaca. It is the highest altitude navigable lake in the world. Despite its great altitude, Lake Titcaca is quite large, boasting over 40 islands capable of sustaining their own small populations. Like the major bodies of water listed before, Lake Titicaca was a thriving metropolis with many neighboring tribes engaging in trade and conflict. In the early days the Uros were one of them. But the Uros had a problem, they were one of the smallest tribes to exist in the Andes mountains. So what is a small tribe to do when faced with big and possibly hostile neighbors? The Uros thought of an ingenious solution that they were forced to enact one day when one of the neighboring tribes invaded.

All along the banks of Lake Titicaca grows a special type of reed called the Totora. The Totora is unique becuase of its hollow root system, these special roots allow chunks of soil to be cut off from the land and hauled out into the lake. Once brought into the water, these cubes of soil will actually float. This allowed the Uros to build huts and other structures on top of the floating blocks out of those very same reeds. So when they were attacked, the Uros were able to flee to their floating homes which had already been constructed in the lake, and simply push them farther from shore.

But the Totora reeds came with even more benefits, the white inner parts of the reed were edible, and even useful in making medicine. This meant that when combined with fish, the Uros people could provide themselves with both the food and water they needed to survive. Soon the Uros tribe decided to live on the water full time, and do away with their former land based lifestyle. They soon had domesticated cormorants which they tied to their rafts and used to catch fish for themselves. And later even began farming Ibis like chicken, raising them for both their meat and eggs. Life in the floating villages had become easy and peaceful, and unless an opposing tribe was willing to build a fleet to come after them they would likely never come under attack. But unfortunately, with the rise of the Incan Empire, that is exactly what happened.

The Inca soon arrived and conquered all of the tribes on the shores of the lake, finally being surrounded, and with Incan fleets being built on the shore, the Uros had no choice but to surrender. Over the next century they slowly began to lose their language as they engaged in trade with the larger Aymara tribe. The Incan Empire was later conquered by the Spanish Empire but this brought little changes for the Uros, who were able to isolate themselves from the political dealings outside their lake.

Slowly they began to regain independence, and reduce foreign influence on their communities, moving them to the middle of the lake to be as far away from the shore as possible. This isolation continued until 1986 when a huge storm came through Lake Titicaca that did enormous damage to their village. Finally deciding it was time to reconnect with the world, the Uros tribe moved back towards the shore near the city of Puno, and ended their period of political isolation. Today of the 5,500 Uros remaining, most of them live on the shore, but many still live in Lake Titicaca on their floating houses, and have begun to embrace modern living. Those who have jobs often work in tourism, selling trinkets to people who come to their floating village. Most boats now have gas engines, many homes have solar panels, and their is even a floating radio station playing traditional Uros music. But all of this can still be seen besides the traditional Uros watchtower, floating over the lake with ever vigilant guards. Today the watchtowers are their to protect against thieves instead of raiders, but traditional construction of such pieces is valued highly, since very few people know the Uros written language, knowledge of how to build many of their floating structures has to be passed down directly from father to son. A reminder perhaps, of why they came to the lake all those centuries ago.

Here we can see an Uros man explaining how the floating village is built. The large blocks of soil below the house are buoyant, keeping it lifted above the water, for added height and buoyancy several layers of reeds are added to the soil block, on top of which is placed the reed house. The lower layers of reeds will rot, meaning they have to be continually renewed by fresh cut reeds every few weeks. It is a process that requires continuous work and maintenance.