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Beyond elite control: residential reservoirs at Caracol, Belize

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The Classic Period Maya (300 CE to 900 CE) built many of their cities away from standing, flowing, or subterranean water resources. Because of this, scholars have suggested that one key manifestation of ancient Maya ritual and political authority was the control and management of water housed in large central‐site reservoirs, rectilinear excavated features that were lined with stone and coated with plaster or clay to catch and store rainfall runoff. This research assesses those arguments by using remote sensing data to map residential reservoirs—smaller versions of the monumental reservoirs in city centers—from the intensively investigated city of Caracol, Belize. The Caracol Maya were entirely dependent on rainfall and built monumental and residential reservoirs throughout their city. Using a 200‐square kilometer Digital Elevation Model created from LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data, research uncovered the extent of ancient water capture at Caracol. Analysis of the LiDAR data reveals a conservative count of 1590 reservoirs at Caracol; this is more than 25 times the number of reservoirs identified by traditional ground survey methods. These data demonstrate how the people of Caracol were able to successfully harness the water available in their environment. In addition, the decentralized nature of Caracol's reservoirs suggests that elite power, at least in this ancient city, was not based on control of water resources due to the ubiquity of residential reservoirs throughout the site. WIREs Water 2016, 3:885–897. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1171 This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Planning Water Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change Human Water > Water Governance
Map of the Maya Area.
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(N = 1590) Distribution of the surface areas of reservoirs at Caracol. There are three distinct groups of reservoirs based on size: those under the box and whisker plot, the set of outliers between 77 and 400 m2 of surface area, and those outliers with over 1000 m2 of surface area. (A) All reservoirs at Caracol and (B) Non‐outlier reservoirs at Caracol.
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The 1590 reservoirs identified through visual inspection in this analysis are shown above, with Caracol's dendritic causeway system, and with the intensive terracing boundary. Remote survey focused within the boundary of intensive terracing indicated by the green boundary.
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Multiple visualizations methods showing the same landscape. (A–C) hillshaded relief model, colored DEM, and the custom local relief model.
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This map shows where Caracol is located in Belize, and extent of intensive terracing at the site. However, terracing and settlement continue beyond this boundary.
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Ground‐truthing of reservoirs at Caracol. (A) the largest Caracol reservoir in the epicenter and still holds water today. (B and C) smaller household reservoirs which also still retain water.
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Understanding ancient Maya water resources and the implications for a more sustainable future
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Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change
Human Water > Water Governance
Engineering Water > Planning Water

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