Splash by Howard Means


10,000 Years of Swimming

Choose a stroke and get paddling through the human history of swimming!

From man’s first recorded dip into what’s now the driest spot on earth to the splashing, sparkling pool party in your backyard, humans have been getting wet for 10,000 years. And for most of modern history, swimming has caused a ripple that touches us all–the heroes and the ordinary folk; the real and the mythic.

Splash! dives into Egypt, winds through ancient Greece and Rome, flows mostly underground through the Dark and Middle Ages (at least in Europe), and then reemerges in the wake of the Renaissance before taking its final lap at today’s Olympic games.

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Choose a stroke and get paddling through the human history of swimming!

From man’s first recorded dip into what’s now the driest spot on earth to the splashing, sparkling pool party in your backyard, humans have been getting wet for 10,000 years. And for most of modern history, swimming has caused a ripple that touches us all–the heroes and the ordinary folk; the real and the mythic.

Splash! dives into Egypt, winds through ancient Greece and Rome, flows mostly underground through the Dark and Middle Ages (at least in Europe), and then reemerges in the wake of the Renaissance before taking its final lap at today’s Olympic games. Along the way, it kicks away the idea that swimming is just about moving through water, about speed or great feats of aquatic endurance, and shows you how much more it can be. Its history offers a multi-tiered tour through religion, fashion, architecture, sanitation and public health, colonialism, segregation and integration, sexism, sexiness, guts, glory, and much, much more.

Unique and compelling, Splash! sweeps across the whole of humankind’s swimming history–and just like jumping into a pool on a hot summer’s day, it has fun along the way.

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  • Hachette
  • Hardcover
  • June 2020
  • 336 Pages
  • 9780306845666

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About Howard Means

Howard Means is the author or co-author of ten books, most recently 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence (Da Capo, 2016). Hailed by the Christian Science Monitor as “one of the most heartbreaking books in memory,” 67 Shots is being developed as a feature length film by Everyman Pictures (Jay Roach) and Little Stranger Picture (Tina Fey & Jeff Richmond). Means’ previous book, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story (Simon & Schuster, 2011), was featured on NPR and in the weekend Wall Street Journal, and also optioned for TV and/or film.

Prior to turning full-time to book-length works, Means was senior editor at Washingtonian magazine, an op-ed columnist for King Features Syndicate, a daily journalist, and in the distant past, a schoolteacher. He began swimming competitively when he was five years old, continued through college, then coached for seven years. Swimming continues to define his life: Pools, rivers, lakes, quarries, oceans are his natural medium. Writing Splash! has been a labor of love.


“What could be more audacious an act than the attempt to tell the entire 10,000-year story of swimming in a single volume? But that is exactly what Howard Means’s Splash! aims to do. Splash! is an exuberant and sweeping cultural history of the sport and a thoughtful meditation on its possible origins and humankind’s larger relationship to water itself. From the first evidence of swimming in Middle Eastern desert cave art to “aquatic heroism” in ancient Roman warfare, to a visit with the uber-stars and superhuman speeds of the 21st century–Means takes us on a breezy, easily readable journey across time and space to help us even to begin to understand why we took to the water in the first place and why we still insist on splashing about in it today. A great gift for the swimmer in you or in your life.” Julie Checkoway, New York Times bestselling author of The Three-Year Swim Club

“Howard Means’ Splash! has raised the bar for the ‘swimoir’! He takes masterful strokes through 10,000 years of the cultural and social history of swimming and makes the strongest case yet written on why everyone should swim.” Bruce Wigo, former CEO & President, International Swimming Hall of Fame

Splash! is an incredible book–the most amazing stories of anything and everything you wanted to know about the world and culture of swimming and its history. I loved every page!”Rowdy Gaines, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist and Olympic television swimming analyst

“With wit and rich detail, … Means’s delightful history of humans in water simultaneously educates and entertains.” Publishers Weekly

“A nimble social history of humans at play in water… Devoted swimmers will want to splash about in this entertaining narrative.” Kirkus Reviews

“A thoughtful, … comprehensive, well-researched homage to swimming as a component of survival, leisure activity, and competitive sport.” Booklist




In the desert, you celebrate nothing but water. —Michael Ondaatje

Swimming conjures many things: fierce competition, recreation, exercise, open water; a chance to cool off, show some skin, or sink below the surface and be all alone. Swimming is both a precise skill—see the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University—and a performance art. (Think water ballet and synchronized swimming.) It’s wading, splashing, dunking, the dead man’s float, Marco Polo, snorkeling, bodysurfing, a poolside or beachside or lakeside summer romance. The near weightlessness of swimming is the closest most of us will ever get to zero-gravity space travel. The terror of being submerged is the nearest some of us ever come to sheer hell.

Whatever swimming means to us individually, though, there’s one thing it cannot do without: water. And therein lies a great irony because the most ancient representations of swimming ever found are eight-thousand-year-old pictographs on cave walls in what is now the driest spot on planet Earth.

But maybe that’s not such a great irony after all because swimming, like any activity that dates back to the dawn of humankind, is also an index of change: of social mores, of fashion, of how we relate to nature, of religious teachings and superstitions, of sport and how we judge performance, and most notably in this case of climatological change. Which brings us back to the so-called Cave of the Swimmers at Wadi Sura in the Gilf Kebir, in the southwest corner of Egypt, not far from Libya and Sudan.1

The cave and its pictographs had long been known to Bedouin nomads, but they first came to the attention of the West in October 1933 thanks to the desert mapper and explorer László Almásy. The Hungarian-born Almásy was part of a small wave of adventurers who fanned out across the vast, unknown stretches of the eastern Sahara beginning in the late 1920s. In 1926, he motored the 1,350 miles from Cairo to Khartoum, among the earliest efforts to tame the Nile basin by automobile. That trip at least had the advantage of a river to follow, and river towns along the way. Three years later, Almásy ventured by car far more daringly across a long stretch of the Darb el Arbain, following the ancient caravan route from Selima in western Sudan to the southern Egyptian oasis at Karga.

The rugged Gilf Kebir plateau (its name translates as “Great Barrier”) was slower to yield its secrets. The plateau is both massive—a sandstone outcropping the size of Puerto Rico, rising nearly a thousand feet above the desert floor—and massively remote. So far as is known, its existence was never mapped until early in the twentieth century when it was “discovered” by two of Egypt’s most famous desert explorers: Ahmed Hassanein, who would later serve as chamberlain to King Farouk, and Prince Kamal el Dine Hussein, son of the Egyptian sultan Hussein Kamel.2

The western side of the plateau was particularly forbidding, unseen by European eyes until the early 1930s when Almásy and a twenty-three-year-old Englishman, Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton, the 9th Baronet of Marden, mounted a joint attack. Almásy would lead a fleet of automobiles across the desert, while Clayton handled reconnaissance overhead in his lightweight, single-engine de Havilland Gipsy Moth airplane. Flying low over the plateau, Clayton was able to pick out a promising, nearly hidden valley, but neither he nor Almásy on the ground below could find a way to ascend the abrupt plateau, and with fuel running low for both ground and air explorations, the party gave up and retreated to Cairo.

Robert Clayton would never complete the mission. He died of polio soon after returning to England. In the end, it was Almásy, Patrick Clayton (no relation to the Baronet), and several others who became the first Westerners to enter the valley and explore its caves—the first also to realize that they had stumbled upon a treasure trove of primitive ancient art. To Patrick Clayton goes credit for discovering the so-called Giraffe Rock, rich with paintings of the long-necked mammals. Other caves featured archers, cattle, and female figures. So plentiful were the figures that the site quickly became known as Wadi Sura—roughly, Valley (or Dry Riverbed) of the Pictures.

László Almásy, though, won the big prize, or at least the most inexplicable. In October 1933, he scrambled up some boulders, poked his head inside a previously unexplored cave fourteen meters by eight meters wide, and there, floating effortlessly on the rock wall, were multiple painted figures who gave every indication of being caught midstroke doing some highly relaxed version of the old-fashioned doggy paddle.

Almásy had found the Cave of the Swimmers, but the swimmers themselves posed far more questions than answers. The archers, the cattle, the female and other human figures were basically predictable. As daunting as the Sahara was, it was not uninhabited. Nomads had been crossing the sand for millennia. Ancient caravan routes like the one Almásy had traveled by car in 1929 were well established. Camels by the thousands, herded and wild, could still be found among the dunes and vast empty spaces.

But swimmers? Swimming implied more than ground moisture and sufficient rain to sustain grasses for grazing. Swimmers conjured up water in depth and quantity. The pictographs suggest that the bone-dry riverbeds that crisscrossed the Gilf plateau—Wadi Sura and nine others—had once fed lakes that had not only been swimmable but actually swum.

What did it all mean? László Almásy attempted to provide the answer in a little-read 1934 monograph, in Hungarian; subsequent research and archaeological evidence have backed Almásy in his broad details: The Sahara—the “Great Sand Sea” as it is often called—had been for the better part of many millennia a thoroughly inhabitable and very aquatic place. In some places, maybe in most, it appears to have been a very dangerous place to swim as well.

Recent excavations led by the National Geographic Society at the largest Stone Age graveyard ever found in the Sahara—at Gobero, in Niger’s T’en’er’e Desert (the stark “desert within the desert”)—revealed skeletal remains of crocodiles, hippos, and Nile perch. The hippos and perch particularly indicate a deep-water lake at the Gobero site: mature Nile perch, which can easily reach six feet and five hundred pounds, are not a fish made for shallow waters, or light fishing tackle either.

Skeletal evidence was also found of elephants, giraffes, hartebeests, warthogs, and pythons at the Gobero site. Similar fossil evidence can be found at Tassili n’Ajjer, the 72,000-square-kilometer plateau in southeast Algeria, where it meets Libya, Niger, and Mali. More important at Tassili are the fifteen thousand plus rock engravings and paintings that first came to Western attention in 1933, the same year Wadi Sura was discovered. Among them are a whole host of animals, including hippopotami, that have been absent from the area for thousands of years.

Wadi Sura hasn’t received anything like the same well-funded archaeological attention that has been lavished on Tassili and especially Gobero. But it’s on roughly the same latitude, and its pictographs suggest a similar, if less diverse, animal population and a hunter-gatherer human population that learned to take advantage of the water that nature had placed so generously at its doorstep.

Triangulating the evidence from all three sites and many, many others creates a fairly accurate timeline (that is, geological time—within, say, plus or minus a thousand years) of when this Green Sahara flourished.

What’s known is that about twelve thousand years ago, the Earth, as it does every now and again, wobbled slightly in its orbit. That was enough to shift the seasonal monsoons we now associate with the Central African jungles slightly northward, bringing fresh rains to the previously parched Sahara. All across North Africa, lakes sprang up in long-dry indentations. The plentiful rains may have also reactivated river systems that date back to the Middle Miocene period, eleven to fifteen million years ago. One radar study posits a 300-kilometer drainage basin, beginning with three tributaries—one originating in the western Gilf Kebir, near Wadi Sura—and ending in the Mediterranean Sea.

Where water arises, fish and birds follow. Animals, too, including human ones. By ten thousand years ago, migrants had shown up in the previously desiccated Sahara in sufficient numbers to leave a discernible record behind them. That’s when the towering Kiffian—sometimes six feet or taller—began settling into the Gobero site. Nile perch seem to have been plentiful. The Kiffian hunted them probably from reed boats, using bone-tipped harpoons.

For people accustomed to wild climatological extremes, this must have been a paradise, but not a permanent one. Circa eight thousand years ago, just about the time the swimmer-artists were hard at work at Wadi Sura, long history began to reassert itself. The monsoons once again went south. For a thousand years, the Sahara slowly reverted to its desiccated self, but then the climate gods intervened again. A fresh monsoon uptick, not as strong this time, not as much rain, regreened the desert for another two and a half millennia. Burial sites from this later period still show evidence of deep-water waders—an upper-arm bracelet carved from a hippo tusk, for example—but the fish skeletons that survived are smaller and suggest shallow water: tilapia instead of Nile perch.

And then? Maybe it was just the Earth wobbling yet again, or that plus the effects of grazing livestock and domesticated farming. But the monsoons retreated once more to Central Africa, perhaps for good. Rain in any quantity grew sparse, then all but vanished. The thin ground cover that remained offered little and finally no protection from the relentless sun. Desertification had a force multiplier. Dirt yielded to sand. The sand grew, encompassed, and overwhelmed virtually everything and everywhere, save for a few oases and deeply isolated valleys, and the swimmers on the cave wall at Wadi Sura—a lost tableau of the Green Sahara—entered into a kind of hibernation, not to be seen again by other than nomadic eyes for six thousand years or more.