Photo: Mayans Fought Severe Drought Conditions
Although in today’s modern world more than half of the United States is struggling to survive in a drought more severe than any other since 1956, it is surprising to consider that ancient civilizations such as the Mayans faced similar drought conditions with success.
According to research which will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Mayan city of Tikal contained an impressive water management system used to combat drought conditions. One of the most impressive parts of this system is a dam which held as many as 20 million gallons of water and according to the archaeological team at the University of Cincinnati, is the largest known dam built by Central American Mayans, measuring at 260 feet long and 33 feet high. This impressive ‘primitive’ dam was built with cut stone, rubble and earth. The city’s plazas and courtyards were then strategically slanted to provide enough gravity for water to fill the larger reservoirs.
Ken Tankersley, a co author of the paper and professor from the University of Cincinnati states, “It’s likely that the overall system of reservoirs and early water diversion features, which were highly adaptable and resilient over a long stretch, helped Tikal and some other centers survive periodic droughts when many other settlement sites had to be abandoned due to lack of rainfall.”
The Mayans also took great care in purifying the collected water. Sand boxes filled with quartz sand found only 20 miles from the ancient city were placed in the canals. The water would run through these boxes and filter through the sand before emptying into the main reservoir.
According to Vernon Scarborough, co author of the paper and also a professor at the University of Cincinnati much can be learned from this ancient water purification system. “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…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…Perhaps the past can fundamentally inform the present, if we, too, can be clever.”