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When the first cities were born in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, water systems became essential to continue supplying the ever-growing urban population. The ancient Romans built a giant aqueduct. The Greeks developed pressurised water pipes. Perhaps best known for  the Step Pyramid, the Maya are one of the ancient civilisations that developed ingenious uses of water. A new paper published in Scientific Reports has discovered a highly sophisticated filtration system in the Coriental Reservoir, which supplied water to the Mayan city of Tikal. Neither quartz nor zeolite deposits are found near the reservoir, suggesting that the Maya used these minerals to purify  drinking water. These two minerals are an important part of modern filtration, suggesting that the Maya were  centuries ahead of their time. The Mayan engineer used water pressure and he was one of the first societies to use this technology as well as the Greeks.

Because many Mayan cities were built on porous limestone foundations,  groundwater often had to be pumped from elsewhere. Some Mayan cities, such as Palenque, had water networks. In the Mayan city of Tikal in what is now Guatemala, water was collected in his ten reservoirs to supply the city. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati sampled and tested sediments at one of those locations, Coriental Reservoir. They were amazed by the  minerals  found in the samples.

The Coriental Reservoir appears to yield quartz and zeolites in identifiable strata. Carbon dating of the surrounding material indicates that these layers are between 2,185 and 965 years old. This means that sediments were probably added during the city's lifetime, between 400 and 400 BC. The addition of these minerals appears to have been intentional, and  researchers believe they came from a volcanic rock aquifer about 18 miles (29 km) from Tikal.

Mayans who visited the aquifer may have found the water to taste cleaner than other sources, and may have decided to return the sand  to the reservoir. Reservoirs probably used sand  in  filtration systems designed to purify incoming water. Zeolites containing silicon and aluminum have purified many microbes and toxins from water. Quartz helped trap heavy metals and nitrogen compounds. 
The Mayan water filtration system seems to have worked well. Signs of mercury accumulation were found in other reservoirs, but no signs of mercury accumulation were found in the Coriental reservoir sediments. "The ancient Maya lived in a tropical environment and had to be innovators. This is an amazing innovation," said Kenneth Burnett Tankersley, lead author of the study. If you want to learn more about the system, this National Geographic video is a great introduction.

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