Ancient Maya Built Sophisticated Water Filters Using Natural Materials


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A temple increases above the rain forest at the ancient Maya city of Tikal. Credit: David Lentz

Maya imported zeolite and quartz to filter drinking water. Clean drinking water assisted Tikal grow, University of Cincinnati archaeologists state.

Ancient Maya in the once-bustling city of Tikal developed advanced water filters utilizing natural products they imported from miles away, according to the University of Cincinnati.

Kenneth Barnett Tankersley

UC sociology teacher Kenneth Barnett Tankersley. Credit: UC

UC scientists found proof of a filter system at the Corriental tank, a crucial source of drinking water for the ancient Maya in what is now northern Guatemala.

A multidisciplinary group of UC anthropologists, geographers, and biologists recognized crystalline quartz and zeolite imported miles from the city. The quartz discovered in the coarse sand in addition to zeolite, a crystalline substance including silicon and aluminum, produce a natural molecular screen. Both minerals are utilized in contemporary water purification.

The filters would have eliminated hazardous microorganisms, nitrogen-rich substances, heavy metals such as mercury and other toxic substances from the water, stated Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, associate teacher of sociology and lead author of the research study.

“What’s interesting is this system would still be effective today and the Maya discovered it more than 2,000 years ago,” Tankersley stated.

UC’s discovery was released in the journal Scientific Reports.

Nicholas Dunning, Vernon Scarborough and David Lentz

UC scientists Nicholas Dunning, left, Vernon Scarborough and David Lentz established devices to take sediment samples throughout their field research study at Tikal. Credit: Liwy Grazioso Sierra

The Maya developed this water purification system almost 2,000 years prior to comparable systems were utilized in Europe, making it among the earliest water treatment systems of its kind worldwide, Tankersley stated.

Researchers from UC’s College of Arts and Sciences traced the zeolite and quartz to high ridges around the Bajo de Azúcar about 18 miles northeast of Tikal. They utilized X-ray diffraction analysis to recognize zeolite and crystalline quartz in the tank sediments.

At Tikal, zeolite was discovered specifically in the Corriental tank. 

For the ancient Maya, finding methods to gather and save tidy water was of vital value. Tikal and other Maya cities were developed atop permeable limestone that made all set access to drinking water challenging to get for much of the year throughout seasonal dry spells.

“This is what you have to do as an archaeologist. You have to put together a puzzle with some of the pieces missing.”
David Lentz, UC teacher of life sciences

UC location teacher and co-author Nicholas Dunning, who has actually studied ancient civilizations the majority of his profession, discovered a most likely source of the quartz and zeolite about 10 years ago while carrying out fieldwork in Guatemala.

“It was an exposed, weathered volcanic tuff of quartz grains and zeolite. It was bleeding water at a good rate,” he stated. “Workers refilled their water bottles with it. It was locally famous for how clean and sweet the water was.”

Dunning took samples of the product. UC scientists later on figured out the quartz and zeolite carefully matched the minerals discovered at Tikal. 

Ancient Maya City of Tikal

The ancient Maya city of Tikal grew in between the 5th and ninth centuries prior to the city became deserted. Credit: Jimmy Baum

UC assistant research study teacher Christopher Carr, a professional in geographical details system mapping, likewise carried out deal with the UC tasks at Bajo de Azúcar and Corriental.

“It was probably through very clever empirical observation that the ancient Maya saw this particular material was associated with clean water and made some effort to carry it back,” Dunning stated.

“They had settling tanks where the water would be flowing toward the reservoir before entering the reservoir. The water probably looked cleaner and probably tasted better, too,” he stated.

In an associated paper released previously this year in Scientific Reports, UC’s research study group discovered that some tanks in Tikal ultimately ended up being contaminated with poisonous levels of mercury, potentially from a pigment called cinnabar the Maya utilized on plaster walls and in ritualistic burials. Corriental stayed without these pollutants.

UC sociology teacher emeritus Vernon Scarborough, another co-author, stated a lot of research study on ancient water management has actually attempted to describe how civilizations saved, gathered, or diverted water. 

“The quality of water put to potable ends has remained difficult to address,” Scarborough stated. “This study by our UC team has opened the research agenda by way of identifying the quality of a water source and how that might have been established and maintained.”

Nicholas Dunning

UC location teacher Nicholas Dunning has actually invested his profession studying ancient civilizations. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 marked just the 2nd year in his expert life that he might not carry out fieldwork. Credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Of course, rebuilding the lives, routines and inspirations of a civilization 1,000 years earlier is challenging.

“We don’t have absolute proof, but we have strong circumstantial evidence,” Dunning stated. “Our explanation makes logical sense.”

“This is what you have to do as an archaeologist,” UC biologist and co-author David Lentz stated. “You have to put together a puzzle with some of the pieces missing.”

Lentz stated the purification system would have safeguarded the ancient Maya from hazardous cyanobacteria and other toxic substances that may otherwise have actually made individuals who consumed from the tank ill.

“The ancient Maya figured out that this material produced pools of clear water,” he stated.

Complex water purification systems have actually been observed in other ancient civilizations from Greece to Egypt to South Asia, however this is the very first observed in the ancient New World, Tankersley stated.

“The ancient Maya lived in a tropical environment and had to be innovators. This is a remarkable innovation,” Tankersley stated. “A lot of people look at Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere as not having the same engineering or technological muscle of places like Greece, Rome, India, or China. But when it comes to water management, the Maya were millennia ahead.”

Tankersley stated the next concern he wish to address is how prevalent these purification systems may have been throughout the ancient Mayan civilization. UC’s group is likewise studying how the ancient Maya avoided disintegration from hurting their valued tanks.


“Zeolite water purification at Tikal, an ancient Maya city in Guatemala” by Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, Nicholas P. Dunning, Christopher Carr, David L. Lentz and Vernon L. Scarborough, 22 October 2020, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-75023-7

“Molecular genetic and geochemical assays reveal severe contamination of drinking water reservoirs at the ancient Maya city of Tikal” by David L. Lentz, Trinity L. Hamilton, Nicholas P. Dunning, Vernon L. Scarborough, Todd P. Luxton, Anne Vonderheide, Eric J. Tepe, Cory J. Perfetta, James Brunemann, Liwy Grazioso, Fred Valdez, Kenneth B. Tankersley and Alison A. Weiss, 25 June 2020, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-67044-z

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