In 1961, Pennsylvania State University archaeologist William T. Sanders traveled to México’s Teotihuacán Valley to film a documentary based on his 1957 Harvard dissertation, Tierra y Agua. His film, Land and Water, is considered an anthropological classic. Many scholars have compared its importance to other influential films of the same genre like Nanook of the North (1922) and Dead Birds (1963). Sanders managed to capture an invaluable snapshot of land-use practices in the area just prior to the urban expansion of México City – one of the most explosive in human history.
The film chronicles farmers using masonry dams, canals, and splash irrigation; women and children washing clothes at a nearby spring; and the many uses of the native maguey plant. Attention to such every day but essential activities is one reason why this 28-minute film has been used as an educational tool for students in anthropology classes throughout the United States for almost 60 years. Cultural conservation was not the intention of the original film, but it is a sobering reminder of how quickly traditional landscapes and cultural adaptations vanish when sustainability is ignored.
In the spring of 2018, the original film was remastered and translated/narrated in Spanish. This was an important step because the people of the Teotihuacán Valley had never seen the film. By setting up public viewings in the communities throughout the valley, we were able to connect with many residents and interview them about the changes that have taken place over the last 60 years. We even met family members of the participants in the 1962 film. These were often emotionally powerful moments. We also conducted interviews with scholars to try and better understand the role humans have played in altering the environment, both past and present. And a look at what researchers are doing today to find answers to these complex questions as they relate to sustainability.
Understanding the relationship between humans and their environments is one of the most important challenges facing us today. As we become more populous the resources upon which we depend are frequently mismanaged and thus become scarcer. This cycle is one that anthropologists have seen time and again throughout the world. The phenomenon of explosive growth followed by decline is at the forefront of this film project.