The Amazing Water Management of the Ancient Mayans

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.

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.


Rain God ChaacPhoto: Roberto LiebigSacrifices were offered to Chaac, the Mayan rain god, in the hopes of rain

Recent excavations have revealed that the Mayans of Xcoch, who occupied the region from 800 BC to 100 AD, also had an elaborate system of cisterns (or chultuns) and resevoirs to keep the water flowing. They utilized two large reservoirs within the city itself and several smaller cisterns and resevoirs carrying water out to residential and farming areas.

This type of plumbing is typical of ancient Mayan cities and the best known example is probably found in Palenque, southern Mexico, which was at its peak between 250 and 600 AD. It had an intricate system of underground tunnels which were fed by springs and rainwater.

Water ChannelPhoto: Ruben CharlesA water channel in Petanque, use for irrigation and to prevent flooding.


Another intriguining water channel was discovered in Palenque in 1999, but not understood until 2006. The feature was a tunnel, 200 feet long, built into a steep hill. The tunnel narrows from 10 feet wide at the top to a mere half square foot at the bottom. Researchers concluded that the channel was designed to create water pressure, and that water coming from the spring at the top of the hill would have had enough force to shoot 20 feet into the air! Quite an impressive fountain, if that’s what it was. Whether it functioned as decoration or for some other purpose such as wastewater disposal is not yet known. It has even been suggested it was used as plumbing for toilets!

Unfortunately, all their water management skills did not save the Mayan civilisation in the end, and Palenque was abandoned in 800AD, about 700 years after Xcoch. The reasons are still a mystery, with theories such as disease outbreaks, overpopulation and foreign invasion put forward over the years. More recently, in 2011 scientists have linked the collapse of the Mayan cities to climate change. The destruction of their rainforests for farming may have reduced transevaporation, resulting in lower rainfall and drought. Perhaps a cautionary tale for us today – the best water management system in the world still requires a fresh water supply.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5