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Understanding ancient Maya water resources and the implications for a more sustainable future

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Archeological research often provides a glimpse into the daily lives and generational outcomes of our collective past, but rarely does it lead to significant effects on living (and possibly future) populations. Understanding the impact early civilizations 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 endeavors. 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 watershed 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 unsustainable 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. This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Planning Water Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change Science of Water > Water Extremes
A map of the Maya region that includes southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and northern El Salvador.
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Empty containers waiting to be filled by the water trucks alongside the road to Tikal. Source: Jay Silverstein.
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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.
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Estimated land cover for the Palenque watershed from A.D. 600 to A.D. 700.
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A 3D illustration of the drainage patterns and reservoirs of Tikal. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 1991 xxx)
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The interior of the subterranean aqueduct, OT‐A1 (the Palace Aqueduct), at Palenque. Source: Kirk French.
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Engineering Water > Planning Water
Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change
Science of Water > Water Extremes

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