The region of the Yucatan Peninsula called the Puuc [Pook] has no natural water sources—n o streams, lakes, rivers, or springs—so the Maya had to use ingenuity to figure out how to sustain large populations in this environment. They became excellent managers of rainwater, using massive systems of cisterns called chultuns to collect and store rainwater.

  • 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?

      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?

      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?

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

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

      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?

      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.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    anthropology Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology
    archaeology Noun

    study of human history, based on material remains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology
    chultun Noun

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

    civilization Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    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.

    field work Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: field work
    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.

    lake Noun

    body of water surrounded by land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lake
    Maya Noun

    people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    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.