Image: Temple
Zap Ichigo  /  Shutterstock
A temple in the Mayan city of Tikal, where a complex system of reservoirs met the water needs of the growing population.
updated 7/16/2012 6:57:14 PM ET 2012-07-16T22:57:14

For four months out of every year in the ancient Maya city of Tikal, the skies dried up and no rain fell. Nevertheless, this metropolis in what is now Guatemala became a bustling hub of as many as 80,000 residents by the year 700. Now, researchers have found that the residents of Tikal hung on to their civilization for more than 1,000 years, thanks to a surprisingly sustainable system of water delivery.

The water needs of Tikal were met by a series of paved reservoirs that held rainwater during the 8-month-long wet season for use during dry periods, archaeologists report Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This early plumbing system was surprisingly resilient, seeing the city through times of both plenty and drought.

"These people were able to use their land and water resources in a sustainable manner for as long as 1,500 years without significant interruption," said study researcher Vernon Scarborough, an anthropologist at the University of Cincinnati.

Mayan water supply
Scarborough and his colleagues have been excavating the reservoirs, canals and sluices that once directed water from the crest of the hilly city of Tikal to the residents below. The story they've uncovered is one of gradual technological advances. [How Weather Changed History]

People first moved into Tikal around 500 B.C., Scarborough told LiveScience. These early colonists depended on natural springs for their water needs. As the population grew, this water wasn't enough. So Tikal residents excavated out natural arroyos, or gulches, and paved them to prevent the ground from absorbing precious rainwater. They then transformed into reservoirs the quarries from where they'd pulled stones for their temples and homes.

"Everything at Tikal was covered with plaster," Scarborough said. "When it rained, the water would flow through to these great big quarry scars."

These reservoirs could hold thousands of gallons of rainwater, the archaeologists found. One of the largest, the Palace Reservoir, held up to 19,715,424 U.S. gallons (74,631 cubic meters).

Sanitation and sustainability
The creation of this water-delivery system covered over the natural springs, but did not necessarily destroy them — diggers at the site even discovered one of the ancient springs while excavating an old reservoir and used it to fill their canteens, Scarborough said.

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The loss of the springs brought with it a loss of the natural filtration of soil and sand, however, so the Maya built their own primitive filtration systems, forcing their rainwater runoff through boxes of sand, the researchers found. This would have cleared out major debris, Scarborough said, but city dwellers likely had to boil their water or use it to make alcohol in order to make it safe to drink, as sanitation was not up to modern standards.

The Maya are well-known for their complex calendar system, which some say predicts the end of the world in December 2012 (an interpretation that experts on the civilization call absurd). But the Maya's own fate was sealed by the weather. Eventually, a growing population and an increasing level of drought spelled the end for Tikal. The city peaked in population by the year 700, and by 900, "the show is over," Scarborough said.

Nonetheless, modern people may be able to take lessons from the long-lived Tikal technology, he said. In developing nations where water and energy are scarce, simple solutions may work better than new, costly technologies that are prone to break, Scarborough said. Looking at history can also reveal the consequences of certain water strategies, he added.

"It is as sound an approach to improving the well-being of our planet at the ground level, with everyone benefitting, to use these archeological analogues than it is to invent another technology that has unintended consequences," Scarborough said.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2012 All rights reserved.

Explainer: Tales of seven cities, lost and found

  • Science / AAAS

    The Lost City of Z, a fabled metropolis of unimagined riches deep in the Amazon rain forest, has eluded explorers for centuries. But recently documented traces of a well-planned constellation of walled settlements arranged around central plazas and linked together with arrow-straight roads in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon may be the civilization that gave birth to the legend, scientists say. This image shows the charred remains of a house in the region that was uncovered as part of an archaeological project led by the University of Florida's Michael Heckenberger.

    Click the "Next" label for six more tales of cities lost or found.

    — John Roach, contributor

  • Atlantis legend inspires hotel chain

    Joel Ryan  /  AP

    According to the Greek philosopher Plato, Atlantis was a powerful society that disappeared under the sea in a torrent of earthquakes after it failed to take the city of Athens. Some scholars consider Plato's account as purely fictional; others have scoured the world for evidence of its existence. One disputed theory holds that Atlantis was on a portion of the Mediterranean island Cyprus that was submerged during an earthquake thousands of years ago. The mythical allure of the lost city has spawned a luxury hotel chain. In this image, fireworks explode over the opening of the Atlantis resort in Dubai.

  • What happened to the lost colony of the Americas?

    Gerry Broome  /  AP

    Sometime in the late 1580s, 117 English colonists disappeared while attempting to become the first to settle the New World. Their settlement on what would become Roanoke Island, N.C., was found abandoned in 1590. To this day, scientists, scholars and the plain curious can't agree on what happened. Some people believe the colonists assimilated with neighboring Native Americans; others think they were either killed by their neighbors or sunk at sea while trying to flee. In the image shown here, Frank Ray, a member of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research looks for clues that could help solve the mystery.

  • Lost city of Ubar found


    From about 2,800 BC to AD 300, the city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert served as an outpost for the lucrative trade in frankincense, a sweet-smelling gum resin. Then, according to myth, the city sank in the sand, lost forever. And so it was until archaeologists armed with everything from ancient texts to remote-sensing technology on the space shuttle went looking for the lost city. The diffuse reddish streaks in this radar image from the space shuttle show ancient paths leading to and around the ancient site, which had literally sunk into an underground water hole. Ubar's discovery is an example of scientific sleuthing verifying ancient lore.

  • Lost city of the Incas remains a mystery

    Giulio Magli

    In 1911, U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham scrambled up a steep mountain side in southern Peru and encountered an ancient city of sorts beneath the undergrowth. The site, Machu Picchu, is popularly known as the Lost City of the Incas. What exactly the city was, however, remains a mystery. Scholars have variously theorized it was the birthplace of the Incas, a private estate, and a spiritual destination. Prior to Bingham's encounter, the city was lost to the jungle for about 500 years.

  • Itil, lost capital of Khazars, found?

    Dmitry Vasilyev  /  AP

    The excavated buildings shown here south of Moscow, Russia, may be remains of Itil, the capital city of the Khazars, a Russian scientist has reported. The Khazars ruled the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea between the seventh and 10th centuries. Once conquered by the Russians, Itil disappeared without a trace. Some scholars believe it was swamped by the nearby rising Caspian Sea in the 14th century. Scientist Dmitry Vasiley at Astrakhan State University believes these flamed brick buildings are part of what was once Itil.

  • Layers of Troy found in Turkey

    Warner Bros. via Reuters

    Homer's epic poem the "Illiad" famously describes a war in the city of Troy, replete with tales about the heroic Greek warrior Achilles and a wooden horse. Questions about whether the city really existed appeared resolved in the 1800s when journalists, archaeologists and others zeroed in on a site and excavated the ancient city. The so-called archaeological Troy consists of nine cities built on top of one another and denoted with Roman numerals. Scholars believe Troy VI and Troy VII correspond with the city described in the Iliad. This image from the movie "Troy," which was based on the Iliad, shows the famous Trojan horse.


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