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The scale and organization of ancient Maya water management

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The archaeological remains of ancient water storage and irrigation technologies are often prominent features on the landscape. Dams, canals, and irrigation ditches required great amounts of labor to build and maintain and are often associated with centralized, state‐level management. But these more visible features existed alongside smaller water management technologies that were often managed at the community or household level. In the Maya area in southern Mesoamerica, evidence of these ancient technologies is found in the form of small dams, reservoirs and other water storage features, wells, irrigation canals, and agricultural terraces. A review of the literature reveals that these technologies are ubiquitous in the Maya area during the period from the Middle Preclassic to the Terminal Classic (400 B.C. to A.D. 1000) when the ancient Maya civilization reached its peak of population and political complexity. Small‐scale water management technologies inform us both how the ancient Maya utilized and managed their resources, and also provide insight into political and social organization. WIREs Water 2014, 1:449–467. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1042 This article is categorized under: Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water Human Water > Water Governance
A small irrigation channel on a terrace bed at Chan. The small pile of stones in the upper part of the photograph was set in the channel to slow the flow of water.
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Terraced hillsides, also referred to as tablónes, located in the highlands of Guatemala near the town of Panajachel. These terraces are used to grow market crops such as onions, carrots, and cabbage.
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An idealized drawing of the cisterns, also termed ‘chultunes’ at the site of Labna in Mexico. This drawing shows a profile (a) of the stone‐lined interior and a plan view (b) of the catchment area to collect rainwater (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 1897 Harvard University Press).
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The interior of the ‘springhouse’ at the site of Chan showing the stone basin for collecting the spring water that passed through the structure. The spring was located directly north of the structure and still flows during the rainy season.
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A stone‐lined basin on the terrace bed from the site of Chan in Belize. The small basins, holding only 40–50 L of water, may have been used to irrigate plants on the terraces.
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Map of the Maya area showing major centers as well as many of the sites mentioned in the text.
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Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness
Human Water > Water Governance
Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water

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