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Complex Artificial Reservoirs Were Used By Rural Maya Populations

New research done at the ancient Maya site of Medicinal Trail in northwestern Belize has now revealed how some of the rural populations gathered, managed, and purified the water that they used during the dry season. It had already been known that the larger urban areas possessed complex water gathering and filtering infrastructure, but now it’s clear that many of the less-developed regions also possessed effective artificial terracing and reservoirs that were actively managed for the purpose of purification, simply on a smaller scale.

Image Credit: University of Cincinnati
Image Credit: University of Cincinnati

The site where the new research was done was, from what we currently know, primarily occupied during the Classic Period, around AD 250-900. And was effectively “a rural architectural community on the periphery of the major ancient Maya site of La Milpa.”

The “discovery of artificial reservoirs — topographical depressions that were lined with clay to make a water-tight basin — (has) addressed how the Maya conserved water from the heavy rainfall from December to spring, which got them through the region’s extreme dry spells that stretched from summer to winter.”


“They also controlled the vegetation directly around these reservoirs at this hinterland settlement,” says Jeffrey Brewer, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Geography. “The types of lily pads and water-borne plants found within these basins helped naturally purify the water. They knew this, and they managed the vegetation by these water sources that were used for six months when there was virtually no rainfall.”

Interesting, there are a great many easy to put together water-filtering and purification systems on smaller scales, such as the biosand method, and basic water filtering systems combined with boiling or SODIS. But it’s worth noting how different populations have done it at different times, with the environment and technology available to them. Might be worth studying for those looking to make themselves water independent.

“Brewer has conducted research at the site since 2006, including spending two years of intensive surveying and mapping of the region. Future research on the project will involve the completion of computerized mapping of up to 2,000 points of topography — distances and elevations of the region in relation to water sources, population and structures. Brewer says he also wants to continue exploring the construction and management of these hinterland water systems and, if possible, gain a better understanding of what knowledge about them might have passed back and forth between settlements.”




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