Mayans may offer drought management lessons
A temple in Tikal, an ancient Mayan city with significant waterways.
July 16th, 2012
04:19 PM ET

Mayans may offer drought management lessons

When anthropologist Vernon Scarborough and colleagues began their investigation of Tikal, an ancient Mayan city in present-day Guatemala, they only intended to confirm previous accounts of the evolution of the city’s water systems. What they found, however, could have consequences for today’s societies dealing with water shortages.

Taking advantage of the few months between 2009 and 2010 that the semi-tropical Tikal was dry, researchers had the opportunity to understand how preclassical and classical Mayans (spanning roughly 600 B.C.E. to 800 A.D.) managed to survive environmental and social conditions many haven’t, focusing on three reservoir systems: the Temple Reservoir, the Corriental Reservoir and the Palace Dam – the largest manmade hydraulic feat in the entire Mayan territory.

When the Mayans initially colonized Tikal, Scarborough said, they had the luxury of springs as principal water sources. The springs were self-replenishing in large part due to the porous limestone composition of the landscape, which allowed water to get through the ground and into the spring.

With time, though, the Mayans were forced to accommodate the growing population by paving the land and building more housing, covering up the limestone.

“When you do that, you cut down the potential for recharging the springs,” said Scarborough, a professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati, “but any rain that falls on that surface can now be moved into a reservoir.”

The Mayans were able to construct an extensive water system, replete with channels, tanks to store water collected during the wet months, dams to gradually ration water during dry months, sluice gates to better control water distribution and switching stations that controlled the directional flow of water. But their new system presented them with new problems.

With humans and drinking water crossing paths on the surface, the water was at great risk of contamination, Scarborough said.

By mapping the topography of the surface, creating trenches near the waterways and taking cores (undisturbed cylindrical strata samples of the sediment), the researchers were able to identify where sediments came from, and how old they were. Researchers were also able to confirm the past research and, more importantly, extrapolate that the Mayans didn’t just transport water - they made it better.

Examination of the sediment cores revealed numerous layers of quartz sand. The researchers, who knew that natural quartz sand wasn’t a regular feature of the Tikal region, realized that the Mayans had most likely imported the sand to direct and filter runoff, making even surface water safe for consumption. Researchers know there was a silting tank (a sand filter) at the Temple Reservoir, and concluded they were likely at the other reservoirs also.

“You’ve got to have a clean water source, and we have one scenario now,” Scarborough said. “But be mindful, it’s not going to filter out everything.” Based on his knowledge of similar societies in Egypt and, most recently, Cambodia, Scarborough believes that the filtration process was occasionally augmented by boiling water or simply drinking fermented (and thus cleansed) liquids.

“It wouldn’t take a stretch intellectually that that’s what they were doing in the past in a place like Tikal,” Scarborough said. “The question is, to what degree.”

The real question, though, is whether these revelations about the past could have a measure of influence in the present or future.

“People say that history repeats itself, but we need hard facts to say that that’s the case. But I think our study could give us a window into that,” he said.

Scarborough, whose main research interest is the comparison of water systems between contemporary societies, believes it is important to determine whether societies without contact develop similar water systems.

“When you have different parts of the world with different histories that came to the same conclusion, you come closer to explaining certain kinds of behavior. And that leads to questions about answering sustainability,” he said. “What kinds of lessons can help us in the future project how people will adapt to certain environments? That’s where archaeology’s most helpful.”

The thought, Scarborough said, is that knowledge of what worked for ancient low-tech societies might help today’s low-tech societies compensate for limited water access.

In order to do that, though, researchers will have to conduct experiments exploring the accuracy of their interpretations of ancient water systems – and he wants to be a part of the process.

"I think we have the outline of how they did it,” Scarborough said of how the waterways were built. “We have a blueprint – but it would be advisable to tighten it up, to see if there are any nuances that we’re missing and test what we think we’ve learned. You want to be as careful as possible if you’re going to take a model and apply it somewhere else.”

Even if the systems do work, though, Scarborough said that not everyone will want it.

“You can’t just take a technology and throw it on some group and hope it works. Can this system, with present day society, be accepted? The question isn’t only about the functionality, if it works or not, but also whether or not it’s going to be received politically and ideologically by another group,” Scarborough said.

But Scarborough thinks further research is worth it.

“Humans have a short-term view of their future, and this is an opportunity to look at what we’re really facing.”

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Damon Singo

    Chinese dry-cured hams have been recorded in texts since before the Song dynasty and used in myriad dishes. Several types exist in Qing dynasty cuisine and are used in dishes of stewing hams.

    May 14, 2013 at 4:06 am |
  2. michealclark55

    Man is afraid of his past, thinks he can control his future.true his individual future.For more information

    March 14, 2013 at 5:32 am |
  3. Andy

    How about getting the name right for a start? "Mayans" do not exist – it's the same as saying Americanans.
    The people are the Maya. The language is Mayan.

    July 31, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  4. Reverend Dondi J. Cook CAM (BATH)

    I'm trying to remember, wasn't it around 500-to- 450 B.C.E. that has been established as the probable time frame Peanut Butter Actually comes from???

    July 29, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  5. Fritz

    I'm currently doing what the Mayans did. I'm building a system I call the RRS (rainfall recovery system) that will supply my ten acres of remote, end of the line, practically useless, roly poly Arkansas Ozark forested mountain ridgetop with a renewable supply of fresh water. If I'm successful, meaning if I don't die first. (already past 60) I'll have the top of the hollow dammed up into upper and lower clear water pools containing about 10 million gallons of oxygenated soft water. The upper pond will be a steep sided stone rimmed pool about 30 feet deep and 220 feet across. It will be for swimming, recreation and raising fish. (white crappies, black bass) The lower pond will be dammed up by the 40' wide LSA rated aIrstrip that crosses the upper hollow. It will be for utility use, growing minnows, charging the house and irrigating terraced gardens and about 40 fruit trees. Mostly peaches. I already have 15 and it's a pain to keep them watered. The RRS is a four element system. The 700' water ramp or aquaduct (public road). The drainage system (a bunch of ditches leading into in the woods from the road), The trap system (stone and cement sediment catchment pools) and the two reservoirs. The system will be entirely gravity driven with no moving parts making it totally automated. All that is needed is maintainance of the trap. (keeping it dug out) The entire system is a massive stone and cement structure I've been working on for the last 6 years. Most of that time was for logging out about 4 acres of forest with a chainsaw to place the system and airfield. I have the aquaduct , drainage system and I'm finishing up the stone trap pools. Then comes the dozer to carve out the big pools and build the two levees and rim them in stone and cement. I figure 3 or 4 more years and I'll have it. I'm told by my incredulous neighbors ( they can't picture a 150 lb skinny old guy logging out a forest) that it could be worth millions when finished. Maybe, but I have the best view on the planet and I own it, meaning it's totally private. i can walk out onto my deck nekkid doin' a jig under the open sky all the way to the horizon overlooking the deep green river gorge 600' below and no one can see me for hundreds of miles. At least not without a telescope. I just want to be able to grow my peaches and veggies, raise chickens, a horsie and a couple of goats, catch my fish and laugh in the face of the drought months. i'm sick of them. By the way, anyone with some money could come into these mountains and do what I'm doing in a fraction of the time. I have a homestead exemption I inherited along with the land so my taxes are like around 18 bucks a year. Including the $1.62 timber tax. So that might be worth looking into. This is the last big thing in my life and it's good to know I'll be leaving something behind that will be useful to someone and last for centuries or longer.

    July 24, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • shiftus

      Fritz, best of luck in this endeavor. Indeed through your detailed explanation I can tell you are passionate for the science and appreciative of the pioneering efforts of the Mayans. I hope it goes well!

      July 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • warsame

      this is not a school so there's no need to write a paragraph

      July 28, 2012 at 7:16 am |
      • Jorge

        Warsame, this is not a court hearing so there is no need to be judgmental or dismissive, it is however, a blog on a science article intended towards the science-oriented, whose subjects of preference often require a degree of dissertation to be fully understood. If you are put off by this fact, perhaps a gossip column would prove more suitable reading for you.

        July 31, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  6. Chac-Mol

    The Mayans are far more advanced than any of us could begin to comprehend. We're so blinded by what we've become accustomed to that the idea of someone being more advanced isn't fathomable. However, there are plenty of Spaniard/Mayan's living around Mexico and they're quite proud of who they are. The Mayans are likely one the most admirable race of people around – and it is for that, That I study the maya.

    July 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Crocker

      The Mayans had a dark side to them as well if you recall. Lots of blood was spilled during their reign in the name of sacrifice and war. They aren't quite the ambassadors of early humanity that you make them out to be. Just sayin...

      July 26, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
      • oswald

        Your comment can be directed to western civilization and fit just as well. Just saying.

        July 31, 2012 at 1:33 am |
      • Jorge

        Lots of blood spilled in the name of sacrifice and war? You mean like Central/Northern Europe during the Dark Ages, the Crusades and the rise of National Socialism/Aryan supremacy centuries after the Mayans???

        July 31, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  7. minhajarifin

    Using layers of Quartz sand to filter water. Well played Mayans.

    July 22, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  8. pagan1gov

    Man is afraid of his past, thinks he can control his future.
    true his individual future. But not his Earthly.
    I was told from a native American.
    We will return to our past. And man can do nothing about it.
    Why do I believe this over scholars. Their afraid of the past and think they can prevent it.

    July 21, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  9. $tillRun!n1@Ya.Com

    So where do Aliens Vs. Predator come in?...Come on can't fool me.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • slam2260

      LOL !

      July 20, 2012 at 5:31 am |
  10. MajeztyRene'

    Descendents of the Maya very much DO exist. Not all history books are correct.

    July 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  11. MajeztyRene'

    Yeah ALDO, imagine being kidnapped from Africa like we were. Its a crime !

    July 18, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • ImRight

      Slaves were not kidnapped, they were TRADED by Africans

      July 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
      • PAanthropologist

        Change your name to ImWrong and you then would have the correct name for your post. SOME slaves were traded for but just as many or more were kidnapped, and anyway where do you think the ones who were traded for? Yeah they were kidnapped or taken prisoner from battle. Trust me, I actually am right.

        July 18, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
      • Nethalein

        PAanthropologist: Some were traded, other kidnapped, but history tells us a cruel story about family giving away their family member for anything. But that how it was with every slave deal, through-out history all of us where slaves at one time or another if we trace back our family line back. In the end racism will never disappear because people can’t stop talking about it. If you want a better example YouTube Morgan Freeman black history Month, where he stats he doesn't want a Black History Month and thinks it stupid.

        July 19, 2012 at 11:58 am |

    What a shame the destruction of Maya's Culture. This happen to be the encounter in between 2 differents worlds,cultures and just because lack of communication, were kill, abused, slaved and the total terminated. Centuries later the World learning more from this Culture that they were in fact, more inteligent than the arrogants and killers of such beautiful Tribe & Culture.

    July 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • todd

      As with most cultures, that grew isolated for each other, they actually solved different sets of problems. European Cultures had the Guns, and the Boats. Europe after the fall of Rome, a culture of conquer of be conquered, came about. Governments, rules and laws, and religion adapted to this culture.
      Other cultures, had different set of priorities, and the Mayans were not peaceful saints, they had there fare share of blood shed. But there culture was defined in a way where they didn't need to expand by boat, and acquire bigger weapons. The Mayans solved some of their problems of shortages differently then Europe did. Mayans worked to make a stronger infrastructure more then warfare. Europe went to taking what they need, and less improvements in infrastructure.

      July 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  13. hilo, HI

    Mayans, CNN? Oh really. Drought, impending food shortages -and work the 2012 angle.

    Try Mass Human Sacrifices were the method to controlled overpopulation to fend off famines, so how about in this Modern World, we just Promote BIRTH CONTROL.

    July 16, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • dallasho

      I thought the same thing: CNN is throwing the Mayan 2012 into the ring, trying to stir up the doomsday 2012 scenario. What a farce of a news corporation. How lowly they have sunk from years gone by.

      July 16, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
      • ezo

        And yet, here you are...

        July 16, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • PAanthropologist

      Sorry to say your both going down the wrong thought path here. None of what I read had anything to do with the 2012 Mayan calendar. Hilo, there are quite a few ancient and modern cultures that use or have used what amounts to mass murder on a large scale for a number of reasons. Mayans, Aztecs, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Picts, Germans(nazis), Chinese (still in active population control by forced abortion or outright killing) and yes, even we, the Americans have committed mass murder of Native Americans. Ritual sacrifice still is found today in some small little known cultures around the world along with ritual cannibalism. Please both of you open your eyes and ears, look at what the article says and take it on the scientific value of the Mayan ingenuity and science which worked out possible ways we can help get through the droughts of the future using the past as a guide path.

      July 16, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
      • the logical centrist

        Thank you.

        July 16, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  14. Mike

    Very interesting article. The Mayans were simply amazing, such a shame their society didnt last and we only see the ruins of their cities.....

    July 16, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Epidi

      Urban sprawl carelessly laid out is a death trap sooner or later. I also worry that so much of our farmland has disappeared for development & we rely more & more on imports.

      July 17, 2012 at 4:19 am |
  15. Faisal Lodhi

    Didn't the Mayans become extinct? I'm not so sure I want to go down their path (God willing)

    July 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Hadenuffyet

      Not really , many assimilated with the Spanish . Habitants of southern mexico and northern central america still harbor many of the physical features the Mayans possessed.

      July 16, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
      • WhackyWaco

        Didn't you read the article? Also history books will tell you that the Mayans were extinct in 800 A.D. The Spaniards did not explore South America untill the 1500's.

        July 16, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
      • PAanthropologist

        aWhacky, you really are waco. While a civilization or species may become extinct a population can't as easily as you think. The Mayan people still have living descendants as do the Aztec an d Inca. If you go into Mexico, Central and South America you will easily find descendants of all those civilizations. Really, you should read some history books and maybe some anthropology ones as well. I can suggest some sources on Mayan history, culture and civilization if you would like. I started using them when I was learning Meso-American culture and use those and others when I am standing in the front of the room, asst. teaching these same subjects to new batches of eager young college students.

        July 16, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  16. Nathaniel White

    Dr. Scarbourough,
    Thank you very much for enlightening me on the way the Classic Maya conserved water. I always knew there was a reason I studied the Maya and their incredible inventiveness. I would deeply appreciate being kept up to date on how you could adapt their water filtration system into the present day. Your discovery comes at a critical time as it's apparent the US Contininent is in a 50 year drought cycle (1956-2012) and certainly needs any help that would allow mankind to conserve enough resources as it approaches 2050 particularly in the growth of the exploding 3rd world populations. – Nat White A.B. Anthropology Hamilton College 1980

    July 16, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Lori Campbell

      Refreshing post! Its nice to read a meaningful, thoughtful and pertinent comment. Thank you!

      July 21, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  17. alexxstclair

    Reblogged this on Corazón E-Books and commented:
    great ininsightful article. The Mayans were indeed ahead of their time.

    July 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm |


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