Illinois Sustainable Technology Center - University of Illinois

Sustainability Lessons from the Past: Classic Maya Water Management

Presented by Lisa Lucero, UI Associate Professor of Anthropology

September 8, 2010

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When the southern Maya lowlands became a green desert for four to six months each year during the annual dry season, the Maya needed access to a reliable supply of clean water. This need was more noticeable in a landscape without permanent water sources, including areas in and around the largest and most powerful Maya centers such as Tikal, Calakmul, Naranjo, and Caracol. In response, Classic Maya rulers (c. A.D. 250-850) organized the building and maintenance of massive reservoirs in center cores near temples and palaces. Water collected in the reservoirs during the rainy season lasted through the dry season. A concern, especially as the dry season wore on, would have been keeping the water clean at least clean enough for drinking. The ancient Maya clearly understood how the natural wetland biosphere worked, enough to apply its principles to maintain clean water stores and prevent standing water from becoming stagnant and a magnet for disease and pests. Today civil engineers are exploring these same processes to purify polluted water.

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