Ancient Maya reservoirs, constructed wetlands, and future water needs

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The Classic Maya (c. 250 to 900 CE) in the tropical southern lowlands of Central America dealt with water scarcity during annual dry seasons and periods of climate instability via sophisticated urban reservoir systems they relied on for over a thousand years. Surface water is limited because typically rain percolates through the karstic terrain. I posit that Maya reservoirs functioned as do constructed wetlands (CWs) at present. Still-water systems like CWs and Maya reservoirs can become stagnant and nonpotable due to the build-up of nutrients that promote algal growth. Stagnant waters also serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread endemic diseases. CWs keep water clean via certain aquatic plants since all plants uptake nutrients (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus) and decomposing plant matter supports microbial biofilms that break down nutrients. CWs also support diverse zooplankton that prey on pathogens and bacteria that assist to denitrify water. CWs do not require the use of chemicals or fossil fuels and after the initial labor-intensive output become self-cleaning and self-sufficient with some maintenance. I posit that the Maya used a diverse array of aquatic plants and other biota to keep water clean in the same manner as do CWs, which I demonstrate using evidence from excavations and settlement maps, sediment cores and current wetlands, and the iconographic and hieroglyphic records. The next step is to combine what we know about ancient Maya reservoirs in conjunction with what is currently known about CWs to better address future water needs.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2306870120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number42
StatePublished - Oct 17 2023


  • Maya reservoirs
  • potable water
  • constructed wetlands

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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