We have always had water filters – just not the fancy manufactured ones you are talking about. Natural filters include sand and clays; big stuff could be filtered out by passing water through cloth, or a sieve. Many modern filters are made with natural diatomaceous earth.
Much water was not filtered at all, of course, in pre-industrial societies, resulting in easy spread of many diseases.
Boiling water also kills bacteria, in addition to the techniques rigibson described. As he said, though, there was a time when most water was not filtered and taken from a source that also served as a dump for human and other waste, resulting in the spread of diseases (cholera was particularly devastating).
Inability to filter water well was probably the reason many ancient societies, like the Sumerians, for example, drank mostly beer. While the fermentation process didn’t make the water much safer to drink, it made it taste a lot better.
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