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Focus Article

Understanding ancient Maya water


resources and the implications
for a more sustainable future
Kirk D. French1∗ and Christopher J. Duffy2

Archeological research often provides a glimpse into the daily lives and genera-
tional outcomes of our collective past, but rarely does it lead to significant effects on
living (and possibly future) populations. Understanding the impact early civiliza-
tions had on their environment has been an active area of study since the 1950s. As
one of the most vital resources, water is central to many of these scholarly endeav-
ors. Research has shown that land use is a primary factor on the functionality of a
watershed. Our hypothesis is that simulating past climate and hydrology of a water-
shed with probable land use scenarios can create a virtual experiment to explore
a range of conditions for water availability and use in prehistoric landscapes. The
ancient Maya lived in a varied environment with highly seasonal precipitation and
landscapes that required vastly different water management strategies. Many of
these ancient centers maintained dense populations that ultimately forced unsus-
tainable land use practices. Our approach is to apply simulated climate projections
to evaluate the hydrologic performance of watersheds surrounding the Classic
Maya sites of Palenque, Mexico and Tikal, Guatemala. An important conclusion
from our work at Palenque is that virtual data can provide a plausible framework
for assessing the sustainability of water use strategies, past and present. © 2014 Wiley
Periodicals, Inc.

How to cite this article:


WIREs Water 2014, 1:305–313. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1024

INTRODUCTION Obtaining a deeper understanding of the inter-


play between humans and their environment is one of
M easuring and modeling the human impact on the
environment is a research goal widely held by
anthropologists, ecologists, hydrologists, and policy
the most important research challenges facing scien-
tists today.9 As world population grows, the resources
upon which we depend are often poorly managed or
makers.1–6 Current approaches to understand the
managed for limited objectives and thus become scarce
effects of human impact (climate change scenarios,
or only available to the powerful. This cycle is one that
land cover change studies, ecosystem services, etc.)
archeologists have seen time and again (deforestation
can yield useful data and quantitative predictions on
for the Roman Empire, Easter Island, and Cahokia,
the drastic effects we are having on our environment.
Illinois; salinization of agricultural areas of Ur and
Given the importance of these scenarios to present
the Abbasid Caliphate; decimation of fertile soil by
conditions, recently archeologists have also applied
erosion at the Maya site at Tikal; etc.).10,11 The unsus-
these approaches to prehistoric settings.7,8
tainable acquisition of essential resources for living
∗ Correspondence
commonly leads to explosive population growth fol-
to: kirkdfrench@psu.edu
lowed by decline, a primary interpretation of many
archeological projects in Mesoamerica.12–22
1 Department of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University,
University Park, PA, USA
2 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, The Pennsyl- In our view, a new interdisciplinary approach
vania State University, University Park, PA, USA to understand the effects of human impacts on the
Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of environment, both past and present, is needed. In this
interest for this article. research we take a geospatial—catchment perspective

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Focus Article wires.wiley.com/water

to assess how historical land use and climate change


affect the availability of water for archeological sites
in the Maya region of Mesoamerica.7 The approach,
referred to as the hydroarcheological method, utilizes
simulated paleoclimate scenarios, watershed model-
ing, geospatial reconstruction of land cover, and the
embedded urban environment, along with traditional
archeological methods to provide a virtual means of
assessing the likely water resources of ancient cities.
The key element to this approach relies on The Penn
State Integrated Hydrologic Model (PIHM), a multi-
Calakmul
process, multiscale hydrologic model where the major
hydrological processes are fully coupled using the Palenque
semidiscrete finite volume method.23 Tikal

The hydroarcheological method was recently Caracol


applied to the Maya site of Palenque in Chiapas,
Mexico.7 The results presented views of water avail-
ability at the site through time given simulated land
use practices and climate variation. The method is
currently being used at the ancient Maya site of Capan
Tikal in northern Guatemala (NSF #1211809), to
carry out a comparative study at a location within a
much larger watershed with different geological and
hydrological conditions. Our research has revealed
the potential for watershed-climate modeling in devel-
oping plausible scenarios of water use and sup-
ply, and the effect of extreme conditions (flood and FIGURE 1 | A map of the Maya region that includes southern
drought), all of which cannot be fully represented Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and northern El Salvador.
by current atmosphere-based climate and weather
projections.7,24 after the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. It
For example, one objective of our research in was during the Classic period (A.D. 250–A.D. 900)
Palenque was to test the hypothesis that drought was when hundreds of Maya centers reached their peak
responsible for the Maya collapse. Did the Maya aban- of large-scale construction and population. Each of
don Palenque in search of water? The archeologi- these centers maintained a hereditary ruler, typically
cal implications for this noninvasive ’virtual’ method a king, although queens did rule over a few polities
are many, including detecting periods of stress within (including Palenque and Tikal). Aside from serving
a community, estimating population limits based on as military leader, Maya rulers also served as ritual
water availability, understanding settlement patterns, specialists and water managers.25,26 Scarborough25,27
as well as assisting modern local populations in under- and Lucero26,28,29 have each suggested that it was this
standing their water cycle. The following sections pro- elite involvement in water rituals that provided a vital
vide a short synopsis of the ancient Maya, a brief source of political power for the dynastic rulers.
overview of both Palenque and Tikal, some perti- Maya centers are located in an environment with
nent details about the hydroarcheological method, fol- a unique dependence on the distribution of rainfall
lowed by a summary of implications for this research and geologic conditions necessary to support water
in regard to assessing conditions for sustainability. resources and food for human consumption. In gen-
eral, approximately 70% of the annual rainfall in
the region takes place during a 4-month period, fol-
THE ANCIENT MAYA lowed by an annual drought lasting 4–5 months. In
The ancient Maya of Mesoamerica (Figure 1) addition to climate, topography and geology are
began constructing monumental architecture around important factors controlling the orographic pattern
1800 B.C. in the Soconusco region of western Chiapas, of rainfall and seasonal storage of water in bajos (sea-
Mexico. This Early Preclassic (2000 B.C–1000 B.C.) sonally inundated swamps),30 as well as the control
beginning was followed by several periods of growth on sources of springs and stream flow. The bajo edges
and decline over the next 2500 years, ending soon are where archeologists have discovered some of the

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WIREs Water Understanding ancient Maya water resources

FIGURE 3 | A 3D illustration of the drainage patterns and reservoirs


of Tikal. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 32. Copyright 1991 xxx)
FIGURE 2 | The interior of the subterranean aqueduct, OT-A1 (the
Palace Aqueduct), at Palenque. Source: Kirk French.
low-flow, seasonal springs or seeps34 which would
have been attractive to early settlers but insufficient
earliest Maya settlements.31 The distribution of karst to supply a large population.
geology is another essential factor that supports water The ancient Maya center of Palenque was once
supply in the case of springs or can result in deep infil- a major player in the Usumacinta River Basin and
tration and a loss of water during droughts. politically significant throughout much of the Maya
As the Maya population grew, so did its demand Lowlands.35 Palenque’s geographical setting differed
for water. In order to sustain life during the 4-month from those found elsewhere in the Maya Lowlands
dry season, the Maya mimicked and enhances natural which is generally dominated by low topographic
water storage features by engineering large reservoirs relief. At Palenque, situated in the foothills of the Chi-
at favorable locations throughout the landscape.27,32 apas plateau, well drained karstic uplands allowed
They capitalized on water storage by paving and cant- their builders to take advantage of favorable con-
ing the surfaces of their plazas to funnel rainfall into ditions for urban development, while also affording
the reservoirs and reduce losses to deep infiltration. access to the surrounding low topography of the plains
Palenque (100 B.C.–A.D. 800), a UNESCO of Tabasco for agriculture.36 While the city of Tikal
World Heritage Site located in Chiapas, Mexico, is grew in a diffused and rambling pattern adapting to
ecologically distinct when compared to many other lowland environmental conditions, the inhabitants of
Maya sites because of its water-saturated landscape.33 Palenque were confined to a small but well watered
While the Maya of most other urban centers were location (ca. 2.2 km2 ) constrained by the limited space
concerned with storing water, the Palencanos were available for urban development.37 This confinement
devising methods of managing their 3200 mm of created a much more chaotic and crowded layout than
precipitation, 60 springs, and 9 perennial waterways that of most other Maya centers and, when com-
through complex system of subterranean aqueducts pared to other Maya centers with similar influence
(Figure 2) and drains.33 From 2007 to 2009, the such as Tikal, exhibit remarkably different water man-
Palenque Hydroarcheolgical Project (PHAP) investi- agement strategies.38 These topographic differences
gated and modeled the watershed at this water rich also enabled the Palencanos to live in close proxim-
Classic Maya site.7 The useful results yielded from ity to their agricultural resources versus the more dis-
PHAP suggested a need to apply the approach to a persed layout found at Tikal. Our study at Palenque
larger site in a different environment. helps us frame interesting questions about the likely
In the Peten Region of northern Guatemala the hydrologic conditions at Tikal, including: (1) To what
ancient Maya of Tikal manipulated their landscape degree is climate a determinant in the type and inten-
from 400 B.C. to A.D. 900 in a much different way. sity of water management practices? (2) Does land use
Tikal, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is typ- change drive scarcity of water supply (e.g., increased
ical of the Maya Lowlands climate and geological erosion leading to down-cutting of the channel and the
environment, that reflects a much lower precipitation water table) as has been suggested in the southwestern
(∼1700 mm annually), and a dependence on reser- United States?39–41 (3) Does land cover change induce
voirs (Figure 3), and bajos, during the dry season.32 erosion? (4) Does the scale of urbanization evident for
Researchers in Tikal have recently discovered small Palenque and Tikal alter (1), (2), and (3)?

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Although limited in civic space, the reliable Deforested


karst springs at Palenque made them less susceptible
to seasonal drought conditions. Tikal on the other Urban
hand, although not constrained geographically was
constrained by the degree of rainfall capture and
storage. Since Tikal held sway over areas upward of
50–100 km2 and populations of 50,000–100,000, our Forested

current research is investigating the role climate and


land use might have played in Tikal’s abandonment
around A.D. 900.

THE HYDROARCHEOLOGICAL N
500 m
METHOD
The main goal of the hydroarcheological method is to FIGURE 4 | Estimated land cover for the Palenque watershed from
develop plausible spatial representations of land use, A.D. 600 to A.D. 700.
landscape change, and resource availability by using
watershed modeling and simulation programs that amplified response in watershed runoff and water
capture long-term environmental change and response availability at Palenque. Will this also be true for
to annual climate variation, including extreme condi- Tikal?
tions of drought duration and flooding.24 By imple- In Tikal, the simulation of three different land
menting a virtual simulation of climate conditions use and management strategies are being generated
a catchment hydrologic model is used to generate a using paleoclimate data from MarkSim (a stochas-
geospatial dynamic view forced by plausible climatic tic weather generator for crop modeling and risk
scenarios, land use practices of deforestation, ero- assessment based on the instrumental record of
sion, urban development, agricultural production, and 9200 tropical weather stations)43 and the Bryson
water management features. Archeaoclimatology Macrophysical Climate Model (a
The application of the hydroarcheological high-resolution, site-specific, macrophysical climate
method at the site of Palenque shed light on several model).44 This data will allow PIHMgis (the Penn
important factors. First, Palenque was most likely State Integrated Hydrologic Model and GIS)23,45 to
not abandoned due to a lack of water.7 The results simulate the effects of land use, land cover, and chang-
from the modeling of the watershed under conditions ing patterns of soil erosion on water movement and
that accompany severe drought, shows that the site availability. Particular emphasis, again, will be placed
maintains water output that is more than sufficient on evaluating the effects of extreme climate events on
for both personal consumption and agricultural water availability/distribution, but the key purpose is
production for the city’s estimated population of to analyze the effects of land use change, primarily
6000.42 deforestation, erosion and sustained agricultural pro-
Second, a surprising result from the modeling duction throughout the watershed on regional water
revealed that land use can drastically amplify the availability.
climate change impacts on the watershed. Take for It is important to note that we are using the
example two virtual scenarios of the Palenque water- model to reconstruct an inferential window of possi-
shed: (1) assume land cover of 100% tropical forest ble Maya environmental land use and water resources,
as it was around 500 B.C. (no evidence of Maya occu- to virtually analyze how what we know historically
pation) versus; (2) assume 40% tropical forest, 40% about environmental, political, and population pat-
deforested, and 20% impermeable cover (i.e., plazas, terns, may have played out spatially.
buildings—a valid reconstruction of A.D. 600–A.D.
700 based on archeological data; Figure 4). Under
Scenario 2, a 2% increase in precipitation led to a PIHM and PIHMgis
15% increase in the daily stream flow as compared Major hydrological processes within the terrestrial
to Scenario 1. That is, deforestation and urban land hydrological cycle operate over a wide range of time
cover may have greatly increased the supply of avail- scales. Interactions among them range from uncou-
able water at Palenque during A.D. 600–A.D. 700.7 pled to strongly coupled and a typical strategy involves
Comparison of Scenarios 1 and 2 demonstrates that choosing a catchment scale compatible with the sci-
changes in climate and land cover can equate to an ence questions to be answered. In this case, we are

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WIREs Water Understanding ancient Maya water resources

Transpiration
Precipitation

Infiltration

Evaporation
Ov
erla
nd
flow
Precipitation

Unsaturated zone Evaporation

Capillary lift Recharge


Radiation

Later flow
Saturated zone

Groundwater flow Precipitation


Channel flow

Bedrock

Ov
erla Evaporation
nd
flow

Infiltration

Recharge

Groundwater flow
Bedrock

FIGURE 5 | An illustration of Penn State Integrated Hydrologic Model (PIHM) unstructured grid and processes within each prismatic column
including: 2D surface flow, 1D soil column with macropores (three layers), 2D groundwater flow, and 1D channel.23

dealing with urban centers and surrounding water- which is also called model kernel with all the phys-
sheds. Numerical simulation of coupled nonlinear ical process equations and constitutive relationships
hydrologic processes requires an efficient and flexi- identified. PIHM and PIHMgis represent a commu-
ble approach. PIHM23,45 (Figure 5) represents a new nity modeling tool and GIS tool developed under NSF
strategy for watershed modeling where the subsurface Hydrologic Sciences funding for scientific application
and land surface processes for water and energy are to Hydrologic Observatories.47,48 This effort serves as
fully coupled and spatially distributed. Our approach a test of our overall modeling strategy to demonstrate
reduces governing partial differential equations (PDE) the utility of integrated models for ungauged (or nearly
to ordinary differential equations (ODE) using the ungauged) basins, including the atmospheric forcing
semidiscrete finite volume method (FVM).46 The finite to the watershed for water resource assessment. The
volume elements are prisms, projected from the TIN important distinction of PIHM from other watershed
generated with constraints. The constraints are related models is that the physical layers and data-layers
to the river network, watershed boundary, and ele- for each projected prismatic element are explicitly
vation contours. The model is designed to capture linked (tightly coupled) through a data-model and GIS
‘dynamics’ in multiple processes while maintaining the interface.23,45
conservation of mass at all cells, as guaranteed by the PIHM and PIHMgis are open-source, integrated
finite volume formulation. and extensible GIS systems with data management,
The ‘control-volume’ in the finite volume for- data analysis, data modeling, unstructured mesh gen-
mulation is a prismatic or linear physical element, eration, and distributed PIHM modeling capabilities.

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The underlying philosophy of this integrated system is


a shared geodata model between GIS and the water-
shed model (PIHM) thus making it possible to effi-
ciently handle the complexity of the different data
models, representation structures and model simula-
tions, and to rapidly produce new prototype scenarios
for climate and land use. PIHMgis has the capability
to perform complex data modeling (soil parameters,
geology, etc.), parameterization, hydrologic modeling,
data/model analysis and visualization with a tight cou-
pling of data handling, parameterization, and simu-
lation. The open architecture is particularly suited to
the rapid prototyping of model functions in support
of hydroarcheological modeling applications.7,24 The
reader is referred to Qu and Duffy23 and Shi et al.49
for details of the model and availability. FIGURE 6 | Empty containers waiting to be filled by the water
trucks alongside the road to Tikal. Source: Jay Silverstein.

MODERN IMPLICATIONS aim of heading off future problems caused by droughts


Archeology rarely has a beneficial impact on the lives and creating a knowledge base for water systems in
of the people who reside in areas near archeological the area through technology transfer and education.
sites, aside from the economic incentives that tourism A hydrologic observatory would ultimately help the
sometimes provides or the few who are employed townspeople understand their water supply and its
by an archeological project as field workers, cooks, response to wet and dry climate cycles.
etc. Understanding the impacts that land use and With a little over half the rainfall of Palenque and
climate change had on a watershed at a particular few perennial water sources, scarcity of this vital liquid
archeological site can provide local inhabitants with is a part of life for the people of the Peten Region of
the knowledge they need to manage their water Guatemala. This reality has only become exacerbated
resources. Today it is fairly common in many modern by agro-export commodity schemes that over time
cities throughout the world to closely monitor their have resulted in land use changes.50 These changes
watersheds. Careful attention is given to correlating combined with climatic shifts, population growth
precipitation, temperature, and usage to prepare the (chiefly in-migration), and lack of infrastructure have
public for a water crisis. These may come in the forced many local communities to depend on water
form of drought warnings (i.e., deterring people from deliveries. It is common during the dry season to
watering their yard or washing their car) or flood see empty barrels, plastic containers, or oil drums
preparedness (i.e., another inch of rain will cause a lined alongside the road from Flores to Tikal waiting
levee to breach). to be filled by large water trucks (Figure 6). These
Many cities and towns that are home to large same containers are generally kept near the home
and positioned beneath gutters to collect rainwater.
archeological sites are often in areas where monetary
The need for sustainable water usage is dire in this
resources are lacking. Take for example the modern
part of Mesoamerica and approaches such as the
city of Palenque (5 km east of the ruins of Palenque)
hydroarcheological method is a move in that direction
and its 60,000 inhabitants. They still rely heavily
(Box 1).
on water that is diverted and pumped directly from
the Otulum Stream located within the archeological
site boundary. In late June of 2005 the perennial BOX 1
springs that feed the Otulum slowed significantly.
Because the town of Palenque lacks the resources to CULTURAL ECOLOGY
monitor stream flow and rainfall, this minor drought Over half a century ago the deliberate
came without warning. Nearly a week past before a transformation of archeology into a more
regenerative rainfall relieved the area of the dilemma. scientifically based discipline51 began in North
As the population of modern Palenque grows, the America. Ten years prior to that time, an innova-
stress on environmental resources will increase. One tive explanatory perspective, called cultural
of our future goals is to work with the towns people ecology, emerged as a viable theoretical
and city planners of Palenque (and the Peten) with the

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WIREs Water Understanding ancient Maya water resources

The study of humans’ interaction with


LAND AND WATER their environment is called human ecology
An Ecological Study of the
and has had a long history with many trans-
Teotihuacan Valley of México formations along the way.52 Modern human
ecology, which includes cultural ecology, was
founded by anthropologist Julian Steward,
who believed that human adaptation was an
interplay between environment, biology, and
culture. Today, human ecologists rely on the
principles of empirical science in their research.
Many utilize biological principles, some use a
functional and materialist approach, while oth-
ers emphasize political processes.53 No matter
the differing approach, the goal of cultural ecol-
A Film by William T. Sanders
ogy is the same—to better understand humans,
their cultures, and their relationship with the
environment.

CONCLUSION
This multidisciplinary approach to research has the
potential to address several important questions about
the ancient Maya. How tightly constrained were phys-
iography and climate for Maya urban development?
How does this relate to implementation of monu-
mental public works such as the subterranean aque-
The DVD cover of the documentary film Land and Water: An Ecological ducts or reservoirs? Can we resolve the question of
Study of the Teotihuacan Valley of México by William T. Sanders, a why Palenque and Tikal developed entirely different
classic example of research that relied on cultural ecology. water management strategies? Was sufficient water
available for maize production during drought and
orientation to explain human adaptation and does this vary geographically? How effective were the
cultural evolution in both contemporary and water management features at Palenque and Tikal dur-
ancient cultures. These separate yet intertwined ing large tropical storms, which frequent these areas?
pursuits created the foundation for a paradigm What are the hydrologic impacts of channelization or
shift in North American archeology that was reservoir construction? In Palenque we discovered the
embraced by numerous researchers, ready for effects that land cover change has on drought and
a fresh take on the past that effectively com- flood events. We then used that data to calculate the
bined both ecology and culture into its explana- effectiveness of the site’s subterranean aqueducts in
tory framework. This approach has been suc- dealing with plaza flooding. Likewise, our research
cessfully used to orient the investigation of in Tikal will determine the usefulness of their water
ancient cultures through numerous archeolog- management strategies by ’virtually’ monitoring the
ical projects over the last 50 years with the daily water levels of the reservoirs during extreme
production of abundant research that has fur- events.
thered the knowledge of the human condition. In addition to understanding the past, arche-
Understanding of sociopolitical evolution and ological research utilizing watershed modeling can
conflict has been advanced through an empir- provide the data necessary for implementing more sus-
ical approach to the studies of settlement pat-
tainable methods of water usage for today as well as
terns, household archeology, demography, and
future.8,9,54 Cross-disciplinary investigations are the
the environment, among many other topics. The
best way to generate substantive answers to the com-
implications of human adaptation to change
using simulation and a virtual framework may
plex problems our world faces in regard to finite
further the linkage of lessons learned, past and resources. One of the most pressing issues in the next
present. 50 years will no doubt be access to fresh water. The
approach discussed in this paper provide but one

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example of how understanding ancient Maya water water management is a central issue. As this research
resources can offer a blueprint for a more sustain- unfolds it is our hope that we can find solutions to
able approach to water. It is our view that significant many of the issues discussed as they are still impor-
potential exists to enable other researchers to apply tant to the peoples of southern Mexico and Guatemala
the hydroarcheological method to other sites where today.

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