Mayan Water Management: A New Appreciation
As archeologists delve further into Mayan ruins, they have uncovered increasing evidence that the Mayans were aware of the pressure their civilization was placing on the region’s limited water resources. New evidence shows that the Mayans had a highly developed system of water management, on par with that in Europe until fairly recent times, and much more advanced than that in many developing countries today.
Two researchers from Penn State University, one an archeologist, the other a hydrologist, have been working in the ancient Mayan city in present-day Palenque, Mexico. They have uncovered evidence of the first pressurized water system in the world. Prior to their investigations, it had been assumed that pressurized water systems had arrived in the Americas with the Spanish conquest. The new evidence turns that on its head. Writing in the Journal of Archeological Science, the researchers say: “Archaeological data, seasonal climate conditions, geomorphic setting and simple hydraulic theory clearly show that the Maya of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, had empirical knowledge of closed channel water pressure predating the arrival of Europeans.”
The Mayan city at Palenque flourished from around 250 CE to 800 CE, when it was abandoned for unknown reasons, though researchers suspect the abandonment could have been related to limited resources. The area has unique geographical features that make land suitable for construction rather scarce. This means that streams had to be routed under the plazas throughout the city. The ancient Mayans used a system of stone-lined aqueducts to do this.
The investigations of the Penn State researchers focused on the Piedras Bolas Aqueduct, which is at the bottom of a steep hill. It is fed by a spring that gushes from the bottom of the hill. The aqueduct’s tunnel drops 20 feet (7 m) from the point where the spring enters it to its outlet 200 feet (70 m) away. As the tunnel drops, its bore narrows, from about 10 square feet (3 m2) at the entrance to about half a foot square (.15 m2) at its exit. This narrowing of the bore naturally increases the water pressure, so that it flows out with vastly more power than it would under normal gravitational pressure. Christopher Duffy, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, was quoted in Science Daily as saying that “the conduit could have reached a theoretical hydraulic head limit of 6 meters [about 20 feet].” In other words, the pressure of the water would have been sufficient to lift it 20 feet higher than it was at the base.
Though the Piedras Bolas Aqueduct is currently in poor shape after more than a millennium of disuse, the researchers were able to reconstruct it. They found out that, at optimal capacity, it could have held around 18,000 gallons (68,137 liters) of water. Water emerging with such power could have served a number of purposes. It could have formed a fountain in the center of a plaza, for example. Or the force could have been used to distribute it to houses across a wide area. Another possibility floated by the researchers is that it could have been used to carry off wastewater from the city.
Elsewhere in Mayan territory, researchers are investigating water catchment within caves. Scientists from the University of Cincinnati have been spelunking into two caves, which are located in the province of Yucatan, and have been astonished by their discoveries. University of Cincinnati geology professor Nicholas Dunning is quoted in Science Daily as saying, “This is in a region that has no surface water. There are only a handful of caves that go deep enough to get to the permanent water table, so for anyplace that’s bone dry for five months out of the year, this is a pretty special location.”
The two caves that researchers are focusing on are situated in the center of the ancient Mayan city of Xcoch. The city was under continuous habitation from 800 BCE until well into the 1800s. The region has always been drier than many other parts of Mexico. Artifacts such as potsherds and a stairway leading to stalagmite formations provided evidence that the caves were used as ritual centers and sources of water in ancient times.
It is clear, based on this new evidence, that Mayan water usage was much more sophisticated than is traditionally assumed, and was in fact not less advanced than that found in the countries of the colonizers.
[ image: Reid Fellenbaum ]