mayan water filtration system
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
October 26, 2020 ·  3 min read

This Ancient Water Filter System Was Light-Years Ahead Of The Rest Of The World

Access to clean drinking water is vital for a civilization to not just survive, but to prosper. University of Cincinnati researchers discovered an ancient water filter in northern Guatemala that is far more sophisticated than thought possible for that era. (1)

Ancient Water Filter Helped Mayans Thrive

UC researchers found evidence of an ancient water filter system at the Corriental reservoir in northern Guatemala. This reservoir was an important source of drinking water for the ancient Mayans in what was the city of Tikal. (2)

This sophisticated ancient water filter used natural materials to purify the water that they imported from many miles away. (1) The materials identified include quartz and zeolite (a compound made of silicon and aluminum).

When combined, these two compounds create a natural molecular sieve. This is actually still in use in modern water filtration systems. (1)

“What’s interesting is this system would still be effective today and the Maya discovered it more than 2,000 years ago,” said study lead author Kenneth Barnett Tankersley. (1)

This natural filtration system was responsible for removing many things from the water, including (1):

  • Nitrogen-rich compounds
  • Harmful microbes
  • Heavy metals (for example, mercury)
  • Other toxins

This ancient water filter was around almost 2,000 years before the ones used in Europe. This makes it one of the oldest of its kind in the world. (1)

Minerals from Miles Away

The researchers discovered that the closest source of zeolite and crystalline quartz were the ridges around the Bajo de Azúcar. These cliffs are about 18 miles from where the ancient city of Tikal stood. In the city itself, zeolite is found almost exclusively in the reservoir. (1)

Why this Ancient Water Filter Was So Important

Ancient Mayan cities are mostly built on porous limestone. This made it difficult to obtain drinking water, particularly during seasonal droughts. This filtration system made it possible for them to survive and thrive where they lived. (1, 2)

“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,” explained study co-author Nicholas Dunning, who had discovered the clean drinking water on the cliffs 10 years prior. “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,” (1)

Other acient Mayan cities that did not use this system and became contaminated with mercury proved this further. The Corriental reservoir was not contaminated at all. (1)

“We don’t have absolute proof, but we have strong circumstantial evidence,” Dunning said. “Our explanation makes logical sense.” (1)

Read: Egypt Opens 59 Ancient Coffins For First Time In 2,500 Years

Ahead of Their Time

Other ancient civilizations had their own water filtration systems as well. They have been studied in Greece, Egypt, and South Asia. This is the first discovered in the ancient New World. The tropical environment of this area made it critical that they figure out a way to purify their water, as they live in the optimal conditions for toxic bacteria and other things to proliferate. (1)

“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.” said Tankersley. (1)

The researchers’ next steps are to figure out how widespread these systems were in the ancient Mayan world, as well as how they prevented erosion. (1)

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