Of course, reconstructing the lives, habits and motivations of a civilization 1,000 years ago is tricky.
“We don’t have absolute proof, but we have strong circumstantial evidence,” Dunning said. “Our explanation makes logical sense.”
“This is what you have to do as an archaeologist,” UC biologist and co-author David Lentz said. “You have to put together a puzzle with some of the pieces missing.”
Lentz said the filtration system would have protected the ancient Maya from harmful cyanobacteria and other toxins that might otherwise have made people who drank from the reservoir sick.
“The ancient Maya figured out that this material produced pools of clear water,” he said.
Complex water filtration systems have been observed in other ancient civilizations from Greece to Egypt to South Asia, but this is the first observed in the ancient New World, Tankersley said.
“The ancient Maya lived in a tropical environment and had to be innovators. This is a remarkable innovation,” Tankersley said. “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 said the next question he would like to answer is how widespread these filtration systems might have been across the ancient Mayan civilization. UC’s team is also studying how the ancient Maya prevented erosion from harming their prized reservoirs.