The homeland of the Maya civilization was mainly in the Yucatán Peninsula. This tropical peninsula is controlled by a fickle and difficult natural environment. Geologically the landmass of the Yucatán Peninsula is porous karstic limestone platform covered with a thin layer of soil. Meteorologically, the environment is a seasonal dessert with six months of torrential rain and six months of a drought-like dry season. Storm water falling on the ground surface is absorbed by the thin soil layer and flows into the porous limestone and into the aquifer resulting in the almost complete absence of surface water in the Yucatán.
Faced with the environmental conditions of a seasonal desert and lack of surface water, Maya engineers developed technological solutions that enabled them to survive. Well-designed water management systems were needed to capture enough water during the rainy season to provide a year-round source of water for their grand cities and for the irrigation systems supporting their agriculture and aquaculture. Maya engineers designed various types of technological systems to collect and store water, creating including urban watersheds, surface reservoirs, underground structural reservoirs “chultunes”, and natural wells called “cenotes.”
Large cities were constructed so that their land mass and structures were shaped to facilitate the collection and storage of rainwater. The “cityscape” was shaped to direct water into a series of reservoirs. In addition, the horizontal surfaces of the buildings and plazas were sloped to direct the surface flow of rainwater into the reservoir system.
The chultune water collection system
The chultune is a system of underground reservoirs that collect and store rainwater during the rainy season for use in the dry season. The grand Maya cities used a large number of underground chultunes in combination with the planned urban surface area that directed rainwater into the chultune system. The roofs of buildings, the hardscape, the plazas and other horizontal surfaces were sloped toward the intake of the chamber of the chultunes. The chultune was an underground reservoir constructed of concrete with stone facing. The interior was covered with stucco to waterproof the chultune. The engineered structure of the chultune was based on the Maya arch. The Figure indicates the geometry and construction of a chultune. The size and number of chultunes was determined by the population to be served.
The cenote system
Cities in the northern lowlands of the Yucatán constructed their cities around natural wells in the karstic limestone. These natural geologic structures extend down into the underground rivers flowing in the aquifer and water can be retrieved from these natural wells.