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Ancient Maya Kings May Have Already Told Us How to Solve Our Water Crisis

- October 16, 2023

Ancient Maya kings may have already told us how to tackle our water crisis, a new study has found.

The Maya civilization dates back almost 4,000 years and spanned what is now Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and some areas of Mexico.

The ancient people used to use aquatic plants and flowers to filter and clean the waters in their reservoirs—something that, according to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign anthropology professor Lisa Lucero, could be adopted in modern-day water systems to “address future water needs.”

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested multiple ways scientists could learn from the Maya when dealing with prolonged periods of drought—which have become all too common in modern-day America and other parts of the globe.

Mayan water lillies

“Using their extensive knowledge from having lived in this area for thousands of years in such a way as to mimic self-cleaning wetlands and combine aquatic biota [such as plants, fish, associated bacteria, etc.]…to provide clean water that supplied tens of thousands of people, per city, and there are hundreds of ancient Maya cities,” Lucero told Newsweek.

“The kings even donned headdresses adorned with the flowers and are depicted with water lilies in Maya art,” Lucero said in a statement detailing the study’s findings. “Water lilies do not tolerate acidic conditions or too much calcium such as limestone or high concentrations of certain minerals like iron and manganese.”

Water lilies were a strong symbol of “classic Maya kingship.” These plants only thrive in clean water, yet their sediment has been found in the remains of several Maya reservoirs.

This not only indicates that their methods were effective, but the steps they would have had to take to keep the lilies alive. They would have had to use clay to line the reservoirs, to keep any contamination from seeping in and affecting the lilies.

The Maya reservoirs were in use for over 1,000 years, the study reported, and were effective at providing water to tens of thousands of people, even during extreme dry seasons.

“Most major southern lowland Maya cities emerged in areas that lacked surface water but had great agricultural soils,” Lucero said. “They compensated by constructing reservoir systems that started small and grew in size and complexity. Tikal’s reservoirs could hold more than 900,000 cubic meters of water.”

“Clean water and political power were inextricably linked—as demonstrated by the fact that the largest reservoirs were built near palaces and temples,” Lucero said. Mayan kings also often “performed ceremonies to gain the favor of ancestors and the rain god, Chahk,” the study noted.

Tikal was the capital city of a Mayan kingdom that became one of the most powerful in the whole civilization. Historians and archaeologists estimate that around 80,000 people lived in this city.

A main challenge for this ancient civilization was how to keep the water clean enough to drink. To do this they used plants that can still be found in Central America today, including cattails, sedges, and reeds. These plants worked effectively to filter the water, and clean it of any nitrogen and phosphorous. Scientists know this as they have previously found remains of these plants in the sediment of reservoir remains.

This technique using plants allowed the Maya to provide water for their population for over a thousand years. That is until their lands were gripped by a severe drought between 800 and 900 C.E, the study reported.

Lucero reports that climate trends of the modern day point to several similarities with this period of time, and point to the need to adopt Maya-like approaches to maintaining water quality.

“Constructed wetlands provide many advantages over conventional wastewater treatment systems,” Lucero said. “They provide an economical, low technology, less expensive and high energy-saving treatment technology. The Maya would have had to dredge every several years… (and) harvest and replenish aquatic plants.”

Like us, the Maya also built canals and dams to direct and irrigate water. They were even able to transport water across large distances.

“The Maya generally did not build residences near reservoir edges, so contamination seeping through the karstic terrain would not have been an issue,” Lucero said. “The next step moving forward is to combine our respective expertise and implement the lessons embodied in ancient Maya reservoirs in conjunction with what is currently known about constructed wetlands.”

Source: News Week

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