Largest Ancient Maya Dam Found in Guatemala

Archaeologists led by the University of Cincinnati have revealed new details about sustainable water and land management among the ancient Maya, including the discovery of the largest ancient dam in Central America.

Recent excavations, sediment coring and mapping at the pre-Columbian city of Tikal have identified new landscaping and engineering feats, including the largest ancient dam built by the Maya of Central America.

That dam – constructed from cut stone, rubble and earth – stretched more than 260 feet in length, stood about 33 feet high and held about 20 million gallons of water in a man-made reservoir. These findings on ancient Maya water and land-use systems at Tikal in northern Guatemala are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

The study sheds new light on how the Maya conserved and used their natural resources to support a populous, highly complex society for over 1,500 years despite environmental challenges, including periodic drought.

Starting in 2009, the archaeologists were the first North American group permitted to work at the Tikal site core in more than 40 years.

“The overall goal of the research is to better understand how the ancient Maya supported a population at Tikal of perhaps 60,000 to 80,000 inhabitants and an estimated population of five million in the overall Maya lowlands by AD 700,” said lead author Vernon Scarborough, a professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati.

“That is a much higher number than is supported by the current environment. So, they managed to sustain a populous, highly complex society for well over 1,500 years in a tropical ecology. Their resource needs were great, but they used only stone-age tools and technology to develop a sophisticated, long-lasting management system in order to thrive.”

Water collection and storage were critical in the environment where rainfall is seasonal and extended droughts not uncommon. And so, the Maya carefully integrated the built environment – expansive plazas, roadways, buildings and canals – into a water-collection and management system. At Tikal, they collected literally all the water that fell onto these paved and/or plastered surfaces and sluiced it into man-made reservoirs.

In fact, by the Classic Period (AD 250-800), the dam, called the Palace Dam, identified by the team was constructed to contain the waters that were now directed from the many sealed plaster surfaces in the central precinct. It was this dam on which the team focused its latest work, completed in 2010. This gravity dam presents the largest hydraulic architectural feature known in the Maya area. In terms of greater Mesoamerica, it is second in size only to the huge Purron Dam built in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley sometime between AD 250-400.

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