Ancient Maya Water Management

The rise and fall of intensive agriculture in the Maya area

In this model of central Tikal, Guatemala the dark-colored basins indicate the location of  large, very deep reservoirs. The entire city was built with slopes so the runoff would fill them during the rainy season, and these sustained the city all year long.

Around 2000 BCE, much of the Central Lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula consisted of year-round wetlands (bajos or swamps). The rainy season usually insured the swamps would be inundated, but during the dry season they dried up and solidified like concrete. Agriculture was only possible January through February and again May through June when enough rain fell to soften the clays without completely flooding them. Year after year, a major challenge for the kings and calendar priests was to manage the alternating lack of water and its abundance within the same area by appealing to chaak, the god rain and thunder.

To the north there were cenotés, large collapsed limestone depressions or sinkholes that contained ground water. There were no rivers or lakes in the central lowlands because the limestone bedrock completely absorbed the rainfall. East to Belize and to the south, there were some rivers and shallow lakes fringed with waterlilies, cattails and grasslands. 

In the lowland heartland, the Maya planted two crops during the rainy season on elevated ridges. In the dry season they cut canals through them to speed the drainage of the rainy season’s floods, allowing for earlier planting at the beginning of the dry season and extending it long enough to harvest two dry season crops.

Beginning around 100 CE, most of the surface water in the swamps disappeared. Several feet below them is a layer of what was once moist wetland peat, rich with pollen from trees, aquatic plants and maize. At the end of the Preclassic (around 300 CE) and for the next 500 years, the soil was buried in successive layers of waterborne limestone clay. As the population grew, slash & burn farming—burning trees to make fields for crops—decimated the forest. With the trees gone, the rain washed away the soil, and the limestone beneath it eroded to powder which ran downhill filling the swamps with fine-grained clay.

By 250 CE (Late Preclassic), the bajos silted up and the surrounding wetlands were gone. For five months of the year, water was scarce. Nakbe and El Mirador, two of the earliest and largest cities the Maya ever built were abandoned. Water collection became paramount. Pyramid temples, shrines, palaces, platforms, plazas, stairways and roads were constructed so runoff from the rains would empty into to reservoirs. At Tikal they dug 10 reservoirs with a 40-million-gallon capacity and sealed them with black clays from a swamp east of the site. 

The making of plaster, mortar and stucco to pave plazas and coat buildings—to make them smooth and gleaming white in the sunlight—required the felling of trees to burn limestone. To create a lime kiln, they stacked logs about 5 ft. high in a circle, leaving a 1 ft. wide hole in the center. On top, they heaped a layer of crushed limestone about 30 inches high. Then they dropped leaves and rotten wood into the center hole and set it on fire. The kilms burned for about 36 hours, from the bottom up and inside out. What remained was a pile of powdered quicklime. 

When the builders were ready to plaster, the powder was mixed with water and thickened. As it dried on a surface, it became calcium carbonate, which made a hard, smooth, bright white and long-lasting plaster. In places, paved steps, courtyards and plazas were 3 1/2 ft. thick. Esteemed Maya scholar, Michael Coe, cites the production of plaster as a primary reason why the lowland forests were depleted by Late Classic times. 

The Maya farmed the remaining shallow swamps by cutting irrigation ditches into the limestone clay and building up mounds beside them for planting. Many of the lowland cities were built on islands in these swamps. A variety of hydraulic systems were employed, different at different places and times. These included—

  • Mucking. Nutrient rich muck from the swamps was hauled out in back-baskets and dumped on fields to create topsoil.
  • Agua Culture. Ponds in Belize and shallow reservoirs in other places were dug to cultivate lily pads. These provided an ideal habitat for fish, and the pads were used for mulch.
  • Hillslope Terracing. Rock walls were built horizontally and stacked vertically to contain crops and take advantage of natural watering. In the highlands entire hills and mountains were terraced.
  • Canals. These were cut to create irrigation features and raised fields that could be farmed seasonally or year-round. Evidence of the earliest canal (between 200 BCE and 50 CE) encircles Cerros in Belize like a necklace. It was 20 ft. wide and more than 7 ft. deep, ideal for canoe traffic. At Edzna, on the coastal plain of Campeche, Mexico, among her 21 canals, one of them is 10 miles long, with a moat 300 ft. across. The soil and limestone taken from the moat were used to build the ceremonial complex. It’s estimated that the canal and moat took 1.7 million worker days.
  • Chultuns. In outlying communities, caverns were dug into the limestone and lined with clay to hold large amounts of water. They served as wells during the dry season. In the large cities, chultuns were also used for dry storage.
  • Springs, Wells and Waterholes. These occurred in the Guatemalan highlands. They were considered sacred, so ceremonies and rituals were held there, and ancestral gods held council at them—to review their descendant’s affairs. At Dzibilchaltun in Northern Yucatan, there were over 100 small wells.
  • Raised Fields. These were created by digging a wide path through a swamp and depositing the muck on both sides to create long strips of dry land that were cultivated. Hundreds of people worked the raised fields year-round. These are seen today at Xochimilco not far from Mexico City.

Researchers claim that intensive agriculture resulted in three times the harvest of maize fields, allowing the population to double. Then it doubled again. Water management systems were very successful—for a while. But by the Late Classic (750 CE), the Central Lowland ecosystem’s carrying capacity had been reached. Malnutrition set in—indicated by a sharp decline in the stature of elites. Warfare increased, polities became fractured and there were severe, long-lasting droughts. 

By 800 CE, people were losing faith in their ruler’s ability to garner favors from the gods—especially to produce the right amount of rain at the right time. As conditions worsened, people moved away. The reason for the “collapse” of Maya Civilization is still debated/ Certainly, there were many factors. And it was a gradual, century-long process. The timing and management of rain was certainly a prime contributor.

My sources:

Much of the information on ancient Maya water management systems came from publications by Nicholas Dunning and Vernon Scarborough, particularly the latter’s book The Flow of Power: Ancient Water Systems and Landscapes, and his Water Management in the Southern Maya Lowlands: An accretive model for the engineered landscape, an article published in Research in Economic Anthropology. More on the ideological side, I recommend Precolumbian Water Management: Ideology, Ritual and Power by Lisa Lucero and Barbara Fash.


Making Plaster from Burnt Lime Powder

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 132-135)

WHILE WE WERE TALKING, BARE-BREASTED AND BAREFOOT female slaves started coming onto the platform. Stone Face went to show them where he wanted their water jugs, and I followed. Behind them, male slaves carrying lime powder were coming up, some of them bent so low they had to lift their chins to avoid bumping into the step above them. Walks relieved the first man of his jar and poured a ring of powder five strides across between the edge of the platform and the line that marked the eastern wall. His apprentices, wearing damp cloths over their noses, emptied the other jars around the circle and continued to build it until the wall of powder came up to their knees. 

True to his name, Walks In Stonewater stepped into the center of the ring and, as Stone Face poured in water, he began his “paddle dance.” At first, the powder just clumped like dough balls. More water made the clumps melt and even more brought bubbles and heat. The spreading, clumping and mixing continued until the mixture became so hot Walks had to jump out and stick his feet in a water bucket. Meanwhile, Stone Face had taken over the stirring with a canoe paddle, pushing dry powder to the wet center and vigorously twisting, pushing and pulling the clumps until they formed a smooth slurry. 

Walks took another paddle and they worked the mortar until he tired and handed off his paddle to an apprentice. Three of them eventually formed a thick mound of slurry with a flat top. As the mixture approached the consistency that Walks wanted, he went around scooping it up with his paddle, lifting it and dumping it over and telling the apprentices how much more water and powder to add.    

A burst of applause and yelps coming from behind the platform drew White Cord and me to go and look. Six white-robed bearers were carrying a mahogany platform into the plaza. On it was a tall red plaster model of the new temple. When it reached the center, Laughing Falcon raised his arms to quiet the crowd. Unfortunately, he was too far away to hear what he was saying. 

White Cord speculated. “He is probably telling them how necessary the temple will be to the prosperity of the caah.” 

Stone Face came to take a quick look, holding his paddle aside. “It is necessary—how else could he convince his father to come here?” I was tempted to repeat what Thunder Flute had told me about Laughing Falcon wanting to best his brother so he could inherit the throne at Mirador, but decided against it. 

With the underlord’s speech ended, the drummers started again and Walks called to me. “Seven Maize! Do you want to see this or not?” I ran over and sat cross-legged beside the apprentices as their master took a fistful of the white slurry and opened his hand in front of us. “See how it does not run between my fingers?” He turned his hand over and it didn’t fall. “If it falls, it is too wet. If you wipe it off your hand and it leaves powder it is too dry. Mortar takes less water and three times more clay than plaster or stucco.” Beside him were two wide mouth ceramic jars. He dipped into the brown one with a small calabash and passed it around so we could dip a finger into the thick yellow ooze. “Smell it,” he said.

“Tree sap,” an apprentice said. 

“Holol,” Walks specified. “It slows the hardening. You shred holol bark and pack it tight in a jar. Pour in limewater and let it sit overnight. The next morning you dig it out with a stick and press it through a fine weave basket.” 

Stone Face took his paddle and made swirls along the outer rim of the slurry. Walks held the jar over the paddle and slowly began pouring the sticky substance onto it. “Never pour the holol onto standing slurry. It clumps and you get bubbles. And only use one jar for every two jars of powder. No more, no less. This is why we use the same containers and count the jars.”

The younger of the three apprentices asked the reason for slowing the hardening. “Obviously, so we can work it longer,” Walks said impatiently. “If it hardens before we take it to the blocks or while they are being set, it will not hold up. Slow drying mortar lets a block find its proper seating. When it takes comfort in the mortar, it makes a strong and lasting bond.” 

Stone Face stopped his stirring and his brother took a handful of fine gray ash from the black jar. Bending down he went around the ring scattering the ash, keeping his hand close to the surface so the wind wouldn’t blow it away. Just watching him made me want to dig my hands into the jar. It seemed so soft. “It may not look like it, but ash is a thickener,” Walks said. “If we were making plaster, we would use less. Stucco, none at all. Since this is going to be mortar and needs to support weight, I will use all of it.” 

“With respect,” another apprentice asked, “where do we get the ash?”

“Now that is a worthy question. Always and only from a lime kiln—”

“From the burnt wood, not the limestone,” Stone Face interjected.

  “Never from a hearth or brazier. Holy men sometimes want us to use the ash from their censers. Some builders will do it. They say it makes no difference. Maybe not to them, but it does to me. I want my ash to come from the hottest fire possible—so it is clean and fine as dust. Look here—.” Walks held out his hand to show us the fineness of the ash. And when he blew it away there was not even a speck left on his hand. As he scattered the ash and Stone Face folded it in, the mound of white slurry began to turn gray.

Lord K’in was nearing his descent over the western trees and the plaza was emptying out. Laughing Falcon had gone, but there were still men waiting to receive their obligation. Determined to set the first course of blocks before it got dark, White Cord and Walks had the apprentices and me carrying jars of mortar and cloths in buckets of water as needed. Teasing me as he often did, Stone Face said I was too clean compared to the apprentices, so he chased me around the platform, pulled me down and wrestled with me until I was thoroughly coated with powder and plaster dust. As this was going on a lime bearer had come up and told White Cord that White Grandfather was asking for me. Stone Face and I were out of breath, panting when he told us. I was disappointed to leave because Walks said he would let me try my hand at laying some mortar. 


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller


My other sites—

Love And Light A twice-weekly blog featuring wisdom quotes and perspectives in science and spirituality intended to inspire and empower

David L. Smith Photography Black and white and color photography

Contemplative Photography: A weekly blog where a fine-art photograph evokes a contemplation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: