Mayan civilization thrived in Central America thousands of years ago. Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Mayan culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 BCE, and migrated north to the Yucatan Peninsula beginning around 700 CE.

Throughout Quest for the Lost Maya, a team of anthropologists led by Dr. George Bey discovers the Maya may have lived in the Yucatan as far back as 500 BCE. This new evidence indicates the Maya of the Yucatan had a very complex social structure, distinctive religious practices, and unique technological innovations that made civilization possible in the harsh jungle.

This video clip from Quest for the Lost Maya focuses on technology. Modern civilizations rely on extensive engineering infrastructure to make life possible. Residents of the arid American Southwest, for instance, are able to sustain megacities thanks to irrigation networks and aqueducts that transport massive amounts of water from distant locations, as well as technologies that convert sewage into potable water.

The Maya had their own version of this sort of landscape-altering infrastructure. The Puuc region of the Yucatan has no natural water sources—no streams, lakes, rivers, or springs. The Maya had to rely on their ingenuity and engineering skills to sustain large populations in this environment.

  1. Stairway to Heaven is the name of the archaeological site in Mexico studied by scientists in Quest for the Lost Maya. In what region is this site located?

    • Answer

      The Puuc region, an area of the state of Yucatan, Mexico.

  2. What important natural resource does the Puuc lack? How did the ancient Maya adapt to this?

    • Answer

      The Puuc lacks a water source—there are no lakes, rivers, or springs in the region. The ancient Maya built a sophisticated rainwater collection system. This system supplied inhabitants with enough water for several months.

  3. What did the ancient Mayans call their rainwater cisterns? How many of them were discovered in the Stairway site?

    • Answer

      Mayan cisterns were called chultuns. Archaeologists discovered eight chultuns at the site.

  4. What was the purpose of the chultuns' stucco lining?

    • Answer

      Stucco, a hard material made of limestone, sand, and water, was applied to chultuns to make them waterproof.

  5. What technology did scientists use to calculate the water capacity of a chultun? What was their final calculation for the amount of water a chultun could hold?

    • Answer

      Scientists used Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) technology, which relies on lasers to measure specific distances and volumes. They calculated that each chultun at the Stairway site could hold 10,000 gallons of water.

Noun

science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

Noun

study of human history, based on material remains.

chultun
Noun

cistern, or underground water-storage chamber created by the Mayan civilization in Central America.

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

engineering
Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

Noun

scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.

infrastructure
Noun

structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

ingenuity
Noun

cleverness or resourcefulness.

jungle
Noun

tropical ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

Noun

body of water surrounded by land.

Maya
Noun

people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

Noun

large stream of flowing fresh water.

spring
Noun

small flow of water flowing naturally from an underground water source.

stucco
adjective, noun, verb

material, usually made of cement, sand, and lime, mixed with water and often used as a tough, waterproof exterior.

technology
Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

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