Ahead Of Its Time: 2,000-Year-Old Mayan Drinking Water Treatment Solution Still Holds Up
Modern technology is a big reason that municipal utilities can provide clean and safe drinking water for customers, but even contemporary water professionals might be awestruck at the effectiveness of some ancient Mayan treatment systems.
Archaeologists at the ancient city of Tikal in northern Guatemala recently discovered a sophisticated water filtration system, which dates to about 2,000 years ago, built at the end of a channel from a distant reservoir. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati say the mixture of zeolite and quartz sand at the mouth of the channel would have removed most contaminants, like cyanobacteria and heavy metals, and is still used in modern water filters to this day.
“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,” said UC geography professor Nicholas Dunning. Dunning and Kenneth Tankersley from UC published a joint research paper on the discovery.
Water quality and availability would have been a focus for the Maya civilization, which was burgeoning in the 3rd century BC.
“The ancient Maya lived in a tropical environment and had to be innovators. This is a remarkable innovation,” Tankersley said. “A lot of people look at Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere as not having the same engineering or technological muscle of places like Greece, Rome, India, or China. But when it comes to water management, the Maya were millennia ahead.”
The Tikal discovery isn’t the first recent discovery of an ancient water engineering system that holds up today.
Tunnels used for stormwater management in ancient Rome are being restored to handle current flooding issues.
Researchers from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii spent several years uncovering details about how ancient Pompeian engineers approached stormwater management, which included a survey of tunnels that once carried runoff from the city’s center toward the Bay of Naples. Work is now underway to restore tunnel functionality, while preserving their historical value, because heavy rainstorms continue to present severe flooding risks to low-lying Pompeii.