Ancient Rivers


“What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt – it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Hal Boyle, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist


Rivers have been with us for millions of years; their age is estimated by the mountains from which they come and the sea to which they flow.  When a river dissects a mountain range, this suggests that it existed prior to the mountains. What I have found through my limited research is that there is  debate on which river is the oldest.

According to one source, the Meuse River rising in France and flowing through Belgium and Netherlands to the North Sea is considered to be the oldest river in the world.  The Yangtze River that runs from the Tanggula Mountains, Qinghai to the East China Sea, is the second oldest and, at 6,300 kilometers, the third longest in the world.  In third place and fourth place, according to age, is The Kanawha River (aka New River) and the Sasquehanna River, both of which dissect the Appalachian Mountains.   The Nile takes fifth position, the Rhine sixth and the Amazon seventh.  According to some geologists, the Kanawha/New River is the one of the oldest, second only to the Nile.  And to add complexity, a recent study has just mapped a network, perhaps the oldest, of ancient rivers and streams that once flowed beneath Australia’s Simpson Desert.

We take great delight in numerical positioning, yet the overriding consideration is that rivers, which have been functioning for millennia, are in grave danger.  The risk goes beyond water extraction to include disruptive dams and channels, pollution and climate changes.    Yet, there is hope.  We can start thinking differently.  As individuals, we can make small changes that lead to a groundswell.  As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”