2,000-Year-Old Maya Water Purification System Would Still Work Today

The Maya were able to build a spectacular civilization in one of the World’s most inhospitable environments. How they were able to survive and flourish has always been something of a mystery. Now, American researchers believe that innovative Maya water purification systems provided them with safe drinking water – which was crucial for the success of their civilization.

The Maya constructed great cities in a karst landscape which has only limited supplies of drinking water . One of their greatest cities, Tikal, known to the Maya as Yax Mutal, was a massive city, and its ruins are now located in Northern Guatemala. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for its step-pyramids. How it supported a large population in such an arid climate prone to drought was always a mystery.

A temple rises above the rainforest at the ancient Maya city of Tikal. (David Lentz)

A temple rises above the rainforest at the ancient Maya city of Tikal. ( David Lentz )

A Maya City in a Desolate Land

‘The drinking water of Tikal was prone to contamination,’ according to the new study published in Nature. The karst landscape meant that the Maya had to develop water purification systems so that they could sustain their cities. A University of Cincinnati interdisciplinary team has discovered evidence that the Maya had developed a sophisticated water purification system much earlier than thought.

The UC team carried out mineralogical and chronological analyses on three reservoirs from different areas of the Maya lowlands . They date from the pre-classical Maya period to the desertion of Tikal in the 12th century AD. The team carried out a test of the mineralogy of the reservoirs using X-ray diffraction analysis. In the sand of one of the reservoirs, the Corriental reservoir, they came across some amazing results.

Natural filters

The researchers found quartz along with zeolite. According to a University of Cincinnati article , , this is ‘a crystalline compound consisting of silicon and aluminum.’ These minerals have traditionally been used in water filtration. Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, the lead author of the study, is quoted by The Science Times as saying “The filters would have removed harmful microbes, nitrogen-rich compounds, heavy metals such as mercury and other toxins from the water.”

Example of zeolite minerals in the North Mountain Basalt (Jurassic) at Ross Creek, Nova Scotia, Canada. (Michael C. Rygel/CC BY SA 3.0)

Example of zeolite minerals in the North Mountain Basalt (Jurassic) at Ross Creek, Nova Scotia, Canada. (Michael C. Rygel/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

What’s interesting is the Maya water purification system would still be effective today but it was created more than 2,000 years ago. The minerals would have acted as a sieve. The investigators had established how the Maya were able to secure a safe water supply and this was crucial in the development of their civilization.

Re-writing History

The researchers wrote in Nature that ‘Zeolite has long been recognized as a mineral with excellent absorptive properties.’ The Romans and Greeks used it in their cement. The researchers also stated in Nature that ‘However, it has been assumed that zeolites were not used for water purification until the beginning of the twentieth century.’ It was also believed that water filtration was invented in Europe or Asia.

History has now been re-written by the researchers. As they wrote in Nature ‘The apparent zeolite filtration system at Tikal’s Corriental reservoir is the oldest known example of water purification in the Western Hemisphere.’ They also found evidence of the first use of zeolite in the Maya water purification system. This is a testament to the Maya’s ability to adapt to their environment and to use its resources effectively.

Hypothetical scheme of the ancient water purification system at Tikal. Macro-crystalline quartz crystal sand and zeolite filtration system positioned just upstream of, or within the reservoir ingress. (Kenneth Barnett Tankersley/Nature)

Hypothetical scheme of the ancient water purification system at Tikal. Macro-crystalline quartz crystal sand and zeolite filtration system positioned just upstream of, or within the reservoir ingress. (Kenneth Barnett Tankersley/ Nature)

UC geography professor Nicholas Dunning has possibly explained how the Maya were able to understand the properties of zeolite and quartz. Nicholas Dunning, a geographer and part of the research team, was investigating a water source on ‘an exposed, weathered volcanic tuff of quartz grains and zeolite’ at Bajo de Azúcar, a distance from the ruins of Tikal, reports UC News . The quality of the water was famous in the locality. The researchers discovered that this naturally occurring water source’s minerology was very similar to the Corriental reservoir.

The Genius of Maya Water Purification

It appears that the Maya saw how clean the water was at Bajo de Azúcar. They discovered that zeolite and quartz could filter water. The researchers stated that ‘It was probably through very clever empirical observation that the ancient Maya saw this particular material was associated with clean water and made some effort to carry it back.’

They transported the zeolite over rough terrains to the reservoir. Then it was placed in the tank that formed part of Tikal’s water supply. Dunning told UC News that the Maya “had settling tanks where the water would be flowing toward the reservoir before entering the reservoir.”

UC researchers Nicholas Dunning, left, Vernon Scarborough and David Lentz set up equipment to take sediment samples during their field research at Tikal. (Liwy Grazioso Sierra)

UC researchers Nicholas Dunning, left, Vernon Scarborough and David Lentz set up equipment to take sediment samples during their field research at Tikal. ( Liwy Grazioso Sierra )

The Collapse of Maya Civilization

Over time, many reservoirs became contaminated by mercury as a side effect of the Maya production of plaster, which they used on their temples. In a previous report from the University of Cincinnati published by Ancient Origins , the researchers said that ‘During rainstorms, mercury in the pigment leached into the reservoirs where it settled in layers of sediment over the years.’ This was especially the case with those water supplies near the great city of Tikal. While more distant reservoirs such as Corriental remained uncontaminated, those closer to Tikal were all polluted.

Many believe that the failure to maintain the purity of the water supply was a key factor in the collapse of Tikal . The lack of clean water meant that the people would have had to leave the city. Over time, this led to the desertion of Tikal, abandoning the city to the jungle. The Maya metropolis was completely abandoned for centuries and was only rediscovered in the 19th century. Tikal’s fate is a lesson on the need for modern societies to become more sustainable.

Top image: Tikal grew thanks to innovative Maya water purification systems. Source: Jimmy Baum / Unsplash

By Ed Whelan

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