The Amazing Water Management of the Ancient Mayans

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PalenquePhoto: Dennis JarvisRuins of the Mayan city of Palenque in Yucatan, Southern Mexico

One of the most important elements for any civilisation, modern or ancient, is a clean and reliable water supply. This is why most early human settlements were beside waterbodies such as lakes and rivers. Later on, people learnt to control their environment so they were no longer limited by such natural water supplies. A well-known example is the Roman aquaducts that supplied piped water to residences, eliminating the need to transport water in containers from place to place.

Blue CenotePhoto: Adam BakerA subterranean water cave (cenote), a vital water supply for ancient Mayans in Yucatan.

Recently, archaeologists in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico have uncovered evidence of water management that goes back to at least 800 BC. The Mayans who lived here, in the Puuc region of Yucatan, had to cope with a challenging environment in regards to fresh water supply. Because the peninsula is composed mostly of limestone and other soluble rocks, there is almost no surface water. The few lakes and marshes that survive are swampy and not suitable sources of drinking water. Therefore, the only reliable sources the Mayans had for their water were from the sky above them and the ground below.

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Stairs down to cenotePhoto: InriSteps leading down to an ancient cenote

The city of Xcoch, which now stands in ruins, was built above a system of caves that descended to the water table. These underground caves, known as cenotes, were important to the ancient Mayans. They believed that the caves were the portals to the underworld, serving as religious functions and as a practical water supply. So far, over 2,200 of them have been found in Yucatan.

The cave under Xcoch has stairs leading down to the water, and archaeologists have discovered mounds of broken pottery in it; evidence of sacrifice to the rain gods. The Mayans believed that by breaking the pottery, they were releasing its essence and bringing down blessings. The remains of humans and animals have also been found in the cave, but so far it is unclear if they are sacrifices or simply burials.

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