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Dr. Vernon Scarborough, University of Cincinnati – Mayan Urbanization and Natural Resources

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Vernon Scarborough of the University of Cincinnati explores the complex infrastructure that supplied the largest Mayan city with water.

Vernon Scarborough is a Distinguished University Research Professor and a Charles Phelps Taft Professor in Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. His research examines settlement, land use, and water management among ancient urban societies His current projects include fieldwork in the ancient Mayan settlement at Tikal in Guatemala and serving as editor from the forthcoming Water and Humanity: A Historical Overview.

About Dr. Scarborough

Dr. Vernon Scarborough – Mayan Urbanization and Natural Resources

Water management has a long and influential history in the social and natural sciences.  Our recent archaeological work at the hilltop center of Tikal—a Classic Period Maya city in present-day northeastern Guatemala— documents the  functional components of an urban zone and how those parts came together to support the water needs of the community.  Our excavations reveal the manner by which the water system developed over a millennium—a thousand to fifteen hundred years before the arrival of the Spanish--and the self-organizing processes that affected both a tropical rainforest and the ancient Maya.

Our recent mapping, soil coring, and formal excavation program identifies several previously unknown elements and expands our understanding of how the Maya used water and land resources.  Important among these discoveries is the unearthing of the largest ancient dam now identified in the Maya area of Central America.  In addition to locating the springs that fed the original settlement of Tikal, the project also revealed sophisticated techniques often considered “modern.” 

For example, the Maya used a cofferdam for dredging the cities large central reservoir and replenished their potable water supply with sand filtration boxes to reclaim runoff from the huge paved plazas and courtyards. Nevertheless, Tikal and several other great cities collapsed in the 9th Century, in part affected by severe drought; and it is conjectured that maintenance costs overshot available labor costs resulting in poor water quality and access, leading to significant population loss. 

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