If you were a pioneer family searching for a good piece of land where you could build a cabin to settle down, what would you look for? In addition to a nice view and fertile soils, you would definitely want to make sure you found a spot with a good source of underground water, so you could dig a well for drinking water.
But how can you find water that's deep underground? Some pioneers might follow natural signs, such as the presence of nearby streams and springs. Others, however, may have relied upon a Y-shaped branch to show them the way. What are we talking about? Water witching, of course!
Water witching, more commonly known as dowsing, is considered a type of divination used to try to locate things that exist underground, including water, oil, precious metals and ores, gemstones, and even buried bodies. You may hear various nicknames used for dowsing, including divining, doodlebugging, and water witching when searching for water.
Dowsers commonly use tools called dowsing rods, divining rods, or witching rods. The first such rods were usually Y- or L-shaped twigs. Dowsers often prefer to use twigs from particular sources, including witch-hazel shrubs and willow and peach trees. Modern dowsers often use thin, L-shaped rods made of metal, such as copper.
With the ends of the twig or rods in their hands, dowsers walk slowly around an area where they suspect whatever they're searching for to be. For example, when looking for water, dowsers will wait for the twig to dip or twitch when over water. Dowsers using metal rods will wait for the rods to cross, forming an X over the spot where their target lies underground.
If this sounds a bit like magic to you, you're not alone. Whether water witching really works or is nothing more than a bunch of hocus pocus remains a great debate amongst proponents of dowsing and scientists.
It appears that dowsing originated in the context of Renaissance-era magic in 15th-century Germany. It may have started as a process to find precious metals, possibly in connection with the practice of alchemy.
The scientific community today considers dowsing to be a pseudoscience with no scientific evidence that it's any more effective than random chance. Scientists point to the lack of any scientific basis for or connection between someone holding a twig or rods and identifying things underground. Moreover, repeated scientific testing of the dowsing process has consistently yielded results that show the process performs no better than chance.
So how can the fact that some dowsers are successful in attempts to identify underground water be explained? Some scientists point to the fact that, at least in the United States, you'll find water just about anywhere if you dig deep enough. Others claim that dowsing rods may simply amplify slight movements of the hands that could result from human sensitivity to minute changes in magnetic fields.
Despite the lack of scientific validation, dowsing continues to be a popular practice around the world. And it continues to be studied scientifically. Recent research financed by the German government and published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration found dowsing success in the natural environment "far exceeded lucky guesses."
In controlled experiments, however, this same study found similar results to previous studies that found dowsing no more effective than chance. Scientists involved with the study believe these results may give credence to the theory that dowsers in natural environments can detect subtle changes in magnetic fields. As a result, scientists are sure to continue to study dowsing in a search for truth.