Archeological discovery sheds light on the fascinating history of Guatemala

Jürg Widmer Probst - History of Guatemala

A new archaeological discovery in northern Guatemala shows that the ancient Maya people developed one of the oldest water purifications systems in the world. Discoveries like this help to shed more light on the fascinating history of Guatemala.

Not only is the water system one of the oldest, but experts also believe it would still work today. US researchers discovered evidence of the water system in Tikal’s Corriental reservoir. It dates back more than 2,000 years.

Uncovering the history of Guatemala and the Maya people

The water system contains zeolite (a compound of aluminium and silicon) and crystalline quartz. These would have been imported from an area to the north of Tikal. Together, these minerals form what scientists term a molecular sieve. Both are still used in the 21st century for water filtration systems.

This ancient system would have filtered harmful microbes, heavy metals, nitrogen and other toxins from the water used by the Maya people. The team mocked up a plan to show how the filter may have worked. By placing it just upstream from the reservoir, water would pass through the molecular sieve and trap harmful elements from flowing onwards. Researchers believe that the quartz and zeolite were likely held in place by a palm fibre (petate) woven into barriers.

Anthropologist Kenneth Barnett Tankersley from the University of Cincinnati was involved in the discovery. He told the Daily Mail: “This system would still be effective today and yet the Maya discovered it more than 2,000 years ago.”

Highly significant discovery helps our understanding of the Maya civilisation

The significance of this is fascinating. It means that Mesoamerican filtration systems like this one predate European versions. It also means that this was one of the very first (if not the first) type of filtration system like this in the ‘New World’.

Tikal, in common with other Maya cities, was built on a bed of porous limestone. This made it extremely difficult to find and access drinking water during the long seasonal droughts of the time. So, the Maya people deduced that zeolite and quartz could be taken from another region (the Bajo de Azucar region 18 miles from Tikal) and used to filter water.

It’s likely that the Maya people observed that this region was associated with clean, sweet and pure tasting water. This would have informed their decision to simply take this material and try it in Tikal. Maya people lived in a difficult and challenging environment and in order to survive had to innovate. This water purifications system is an impressive and clear example of just how advanced they were.

The history of Guatemala and Mesoamerica is complex

The full findings of the research team can be found in this journal Scientific Reports. One of the key features of discoveries like this is that it shows how much many underestimate Guatemala’s history in terms of sophistication. Many assume that Native American societies within the Western Hemisphere were simply not as technologically advanced as those in places like Rome, Greece or China.

However, when it comes to intelligent, innovative and forward-thinking ways to supply its people with clean, filtered water, it turns out Guatemalan Maya people were millennia ahead of the game.

By studying the Maya civilisation, we can find out so much more about Guatemalan history. Discoveries over relatively recent times show the highly advanced society, with art, architecture, mathematical and astronomical systems standing out. The Maya people built incredibly sophisticated and impressive cities using machinery and engineering, developed advanced agricultural methods and devised accurate calendars.