Maya had plumbing long before Spanish invaded

Penn State researchers Kirk French and Christopher Duffy have located an engineered water pressure system in the ancient Maya city of Palenque that dates back far before the Spanish invasion.

Similar systems were used in ancient European civilizations — Minoan Crete had one in the palace in 1400 B.C. — but before now, no pre-Spanish versions had been found in Latin America, so the conventional wisdom was that there were none until the Spaniards brought them to the continent. The Palenque system, however, was constructed and operating during the peak Classic Maya period, some time between 250-600 A.D. The Spanish conquest of Yucatán took place more than a thousand years after that, between 1527 and 1546. Palenque was abandoned in 800 A.D.

Kirk French first came across the aqueduct and tunnel structure in 1998 when he was but a wee graduate student helping map the city’s ruins, but the significance wasn’t apparent to him or his team at the time. They already knew that the Maya expanded the habitable area in Palenque by using aqueducts to divert the many streams in the area and contain rainy season flooding. It wasn’t until French joined the faculty at Penn State University, put his head together with hydrologist Christopher Duffy and they returned together to the Palenque tunnels that they realized what a revolutionary find he had made.

Piedras Bolas Aqueduct, Palenque, MexicoThe pressurized water feature is called Piedras Bolas Aqueduct, a spring-fed channel on steep terrain.

From the tunnel’s entrance to its outlet 200 feet downhill, the elevation drops about 20 feet and its diameter decreases from 10 feet near the spring to about a half a foot where the water emerges. [See the red arrow in the picture right.]

This combination of a downhill flow and sudden channel restriction pressurized the water, shooting it from the opening to an estimated height of 20 feet.

The effect is like putting your finger over the end of a hose: the smaller the opening, the further the stream of water will spray.

Another system like it was found in Palenque palace. There are no remains left at the business end of the aqueduct, however, so archaeologists aren’t quite sure how it was used. It might have just fed a fountain, or it might have raised water to residential neighborhoods for waste disposal.

French thinks a fountain is the most likely use, a display of wealth and power for the ruling elite, basically.