The drop that makes a vase overflow: Understanding Maya society through daily water management

Maurits Ertsen, Kyra Wouters

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Water is an important key to understand Maya society, especially water availability within a context of climatic changes. Increasing drought would have pushed the Maya water systems into collapse. This paper studies the Maya water systems from an action‐oriented perspective, in order to understand what challenges the Maya had to overcome when dealing with water. The systems found at Tikal serve as main example, allowing comparisons with other Maya sites. In this analysis, hydraulic‐ and agent‐based elements are combined in a model to investigate the performance of the water system within extreme weather conditions and changing human agency. The results suggest that the Tikal water system was able to cope with most of the extreme situations. Furthermore, model results allow proposing that the Maya did not anticipate on short‐term changes in external conditions. Generally, in Tikal surpluses of water may have been as important as shortages of water. The extensive system of drains and canals present at Tikal may have been built to move water from the center of the city rather than to supply water to lower situated reservoirs during the dry season. Such a water‐removal system could be less centrally orientated and organized than is often argued. This could also mean that organizational structures of water systems of different city centers (Tikal, Calakmul, and Caracol) were more similar than usually assumed.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • customary water rights
  • Indigenous water rights
  • recognition
  • water governance
  • water management practices
  • water rights systems


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