Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


UC research reveals largest ancient dam built by Maya in Central America

Recent excavations, sediment coring and mapping by a multi-university team led by the University of Cincinnati at the pre-Columbian city of Tikal, a paramount urban center of the ancient Maya, have identified new landscaping and engineering feats, including the largest ancient dam built by the Maya of Central America.

That dam – constructed from cut stone, rubble and earth – stretched more than 260 feet in length, stood about 33 feet high and held about 20 million gallons of water in a man-made reservoir.

This is a view of a Maya-built canal. Pictured is Guatemalan researcher Liwy Grazioso, who has participated in the work by a UC-led team.

Credit: University of Cincinnati researchers

These findings on ancient Maya water and land-use systems at Tikal, located in northern Guatemala, are scheduled to appear this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in an article titled "Water and Sustainable Land Use at the Ancient Tropical City of Tikal, Guatemala." The research sheds new light on how the Maya conserved and used their natural resources to support a populous, highly complex society for over 1,500 years despite environmental challenges, including periodic drought.

The paper is authored by Vernon Scarborough, UC professor of anthropology; Nicholas Dunning, UC professor of geography; archaeologist Kenneth Tankersley, UC assistant professor of anthropology; Christopher Carr, UC doctoral student in geography; Eric Weaver, UC doctoral student in geography; Liwy Grazioso of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala; Brian Lane, former UC master's student in anthropology now pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii; John Jones, associate professor of anthropology, Washington State University; Palma Buttles, technical staff senior member, SEI Carnegie Mellon University; Fred Valdez, professor of anthropology, University of Texas-Austin; and David Lentz, UC professor of biology.

Starting in 2009, the UC team was the first North American group permitted to work at the Tikal site core in more than 40 years.

Detailed in the latest findings by the UC-led efforts are
The largest ancient dam built by the ancient Maya of Central America
Discussion on how reservoir waters were likely released

Details on the construction of a cofferdam needed by the Maya to dredge one of the largest reservoirs at Tikal

The presence of ancient springs linked to the initial colonization of Tikal

Use of sand filtration to cleanse water entering reservoirs

A "switching station" that accommodated seasonal filling and release of water

Finding of the deepest, rock-cut canal segment in the Maya lowlands
According to UC's Scarborough, "The overall goal of the UC research is to better understand how the ancient Maya supported a population at Tikal of perhaps 60,000 to 80,000 inhabitants and an estimated population of five million in the overall Maya lowlands by AD 700."

He added, "That is a much higher number than is supported by the current environment. So, they managed to sustain a populous, highly complex society for well over 1,500 years in a tropical ecology. Their resource needs were great, but they used only stone-age tools and technology to develop a sophisticated, long-lasting management system in order to thrive."

Water collection and storage were critical in the environment where rainfall is seasonal and extended droughts not uncommon. And so, the Maya carefully integrated the built environment – expansive plazas, roadways, buildings and canals – into a water-collection and management system. At Tikal, they collected literally all the water that fell onto these paved and/or plastered surfaces and sluiced it into man-made reservoirs. For instance, the city's plastered plaza and courtyard surfaces and canals were canted in order to direct and retain rainwater runoff into these tanks.

In fact, by the Classic Period (AD 250-800), the dam (called the Palace Dam) identified by the UC-led team was constructed to contain the waters that were now directed from the many sealed plaster surfaces in the central precinct. It was this dam on which the team focused its latest work, completed in 2010. This gravity dam presents the largest hydraulic architectural feature known in the Maya area. In terms of greater Mesoamerica, it is second in size only to the huge Purron Dam built in Mexico's Tehuacan Valley sometime between AD 250-400.

Said Scarborough, "We also termed the Palace Dam at Tikal the Causeway Dam, as the top of the structure served as a roadway linking one part of the city to another. For a long time, it was considered primarily a causeway, one that tourists coming to the site still use today. However, our research now shows that it did double duty and was used as an important reservoir dam as well as a causeway."

Another discovery by the UC-led team: To help purify water as it sluiced into the reservoir tanks via catchment runoff and canals, the Maya employed deliberately positioned "sand boxes" that served to filter the water as it entered into the reservoirs. "These filtration beds consisted of quartz sand, which is not naturally found in the greater Tikal area. The Maya of Tikal traveled at least 20 miles (about 30 kilometers) to obtain the quartz sand to create their water filters. It was a fairly laborious transportation effort. That speaks to the value they placed on water and water management," said UC's Nicholas Dunning.

According to UC's Ken Tankersley, "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."

UC paleoethnobotanist David Lentz explained that the sophisticated water management practiced by the ancient Maya impacted the availability of food, fuel, medicinal plants and other necessities. He said, "Water management by the Maya included irrigation, which directly impacted how many people could be fed and overall population growth. Accordingly, it is essential to understand the array of canals and reservoirs at Tikal, which conserved water during the annual dry season and controlled floodwaters during the rainy months. These practices allowed the Tikal Maya to sustain relatively high population densities for several centuries. As it evolved, this system of reservoirs was largely dependent on rainfall for recharging. With the onset of the 9th century droughts however, water supplies dwindled, causing the resource base and social fabric of the Tikal Maya to come under considerable stress. These developments may well have contributed to the abandonment of the city."

Of significance to Scarborough and the entire team are the potential lessons that can be gleaned from identifying a water system like that at ancient Tikal. Said Scarborough, "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. Tropical settings can be especially difficult regions because of high infectious disease loads borne by unfiltered water schemes. 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. Allocation and potability were developmental concerns from the outset of colonization. Perhaps the past can fundamentally inform the present, if we, too, can be clever."

UC's research at Tikal is supported by the Alphawood Foundation, by the National Science Foundation and by the university.

M.B. Reilly | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union

nachricht UM researchers study vast carbon residue of ocean life
19.10.2016 | University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>