Ancient earthworks helped ensure sustainable management of resources in challenging environment.
SUMMIT COUNTY — Archaeologists have long known that the Maya were sophisticated engineers, but new excavations at Tikal, Guatemala show the amazing extent to which they were able to manipulate the environment to their advantage, including construction of 260-foot dam that stored up to 20 million gallons of water.
That dam – constructed from cut stone, rubble and earth – stood about 33 feet high and held about 20 million gallons of water in a man-made reservoir.
The research, conducted by a multi-university team led by the University of Cincinnati, helps explain how the Maya conserved and used their natural resources to support a populous, highly complex society for over 1,500 years despite environmental challenges, including periodic drought.
Studying the Maya may offer some lessons for modern resource management, said lead author Vernon Scarborough, a professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati.
“Water management in the ancient context can be dismissed as less relevant to our current water crisis because of its lack of technological sophistication. Nevertheless, in many areas of the world today, the energy requirements for even simple pumping and filtering devices – to say nothing about replacement-part acquisition – challenges access to potable sources,” Scarborough said. “Tropical settings can be especially difficult regions because of high infectious disease loads borne by unfiltered water schemes,” he said.
“The ancient Maya, however, developed a clever rainwater catchment and delivery system based on elevated, seasonally charged reservoirs positioned in immediate proximity to the grand pavements and pyramidal architecture of their urban cores. Allocation and potability were developmental concerns from the outset of colonization. Perhaps the past can fundamentally inform the present, if we, too, can be clever.”
“The overall goal of the UC research is to better understand how the ancient Maya supported a population at Tikal of perhaps 60,000 to 80,000 inhabitants and an estimated population of five million in the overall Maya lowlands by AD 700,” Scarborough explained.
“That is a much higher number than is supported by the current environment. So, they managed to sustain a populous, highly complex society for well over 1,500 years in a tropical ecology. Their resource needs were great, but they used only stone-age tools and technology to develop a sophisticated, long-lasting management system in order to thrive,” he said.
The latest research adds to the understanding of how the Maya carefully integrated the built environment – expansive plazas, roadways, buildings and canals – into a water-collection and management system.
At Tikal, they collected literally all the water that fell onto these paved and plastered surfaces and sluiced it into man-made reservoirs. The city’s plastered plaza and courtyard surfaces and canals were canted in order to direct and retain rainwater runoff into these tanks.
The study also discovered that, to help purify water as it sluiced into the reservoir tanks via catchment runoff and canals, the Maya employed deliberately positioned “sand boxes” that served to filter the water as it entered into the reservoirs.
“These filtration beds consisted of quartz sand, which is not naturally found in the greater Tikal area. The Maya of Tikal traveled at least 20 miles (about 30 kilometers) to obtain the quartz sand to create their water filters. It was a fairly laborious transportation effort. That speaks to the value they placed on water and water management,” said UC’s Nicholas Dunning.
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Archaeologists discover largest Maya dam at Tikal