University of Cincinnati Finds Ancient Maya Water Filter System

Oct. 26, 2020

The University of Cincinnati found that Ancient Maya in Tikal built sophisticated water filters using natural materials they imported.

University of Cincinnati researchers discovered evidence of a filter system at the Corriental reservoir. 

The reservoir was an important source of drinking water for the ancient Maya in what is now northern Guatemala, reported Science Daily.

A team of UC anthropologists, geographers and biologists identified crystalline quartz and zeolite, which create a natural molecular sieve. Both minerals are used in modern water filtration, according to Science Daily.

Researchers traced the zeolite and quartz to steep ridges around the Bajo de Azúcar, approximately 18 miles northeast of Tikal. X-ray diffraction analysis was used to identify zeolite and crystalline quartz in the reservoir sediments.

According to Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, associate professor of anthropology and lead author of the study, the filters would have removed harmful microbes, nitrogen-rich compounds and heavy metals from the water. 

"What's interesting is this system would still be effective today and the Maya discovered it more than 2,000 years ago," Tankersley said.

This water filtration system by the Maya was created nearly 2,000 years before similar systems were used in Europe.

Zeolite was found exclusively in the Corriental reservoir at Tikal.

UC geography professor and co-author Nicholas Dunning found a likely source of the quartz and zeolite about 10 years ago while conducting fieldwork in Guatemala.

"It was an exposed, weathered volcanic tuff of quartz grains and zeolite. It was bleeding water at a good rate," Dunning said. "Workers refilled their water bottles with it. It was locally famous for how clean and sweet the water was."

Dunning took samples of the material and UC researchers later determined the quartz and zeolite closely matched the minerals found at Tikal, reported Science Daily.

According to UC biologist and co-author David Lentz, the filtration system would have protected the ancient Maya from harmful cyanobacteria and other toxins that might otherwise have made people who drank from the reservoir sick.

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Cristina Tuser