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Zeolites in water treatment traced back to Ancient Maya

Until recently, the use of zeolites in water treatment has been considered a 20th century discovery; however new research suggests the ancient Maya were actually using this technology thousands of years ago.

Crystalised zeolite forms naturally and has useful properties for water treatment. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Zeolites are naturally occurring minerals with excellent adsorption properties, allowing the removal of harmful microbes, metals, nitrogen compounds and other toxins from water.

Since their discovery in the early 1900’s, zeolites have been used extensively for water treatment around the world – and the technology is still being developed, with over two thousand new zeolite-related patents registered over the past decade.

However, a recent anthropological study published in the Nature Research journal reveals that zeolites were already being used, two thousand years ago, at a water reservoir in the ancient Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala.

The ancient Maya civilisation occupied regions in south-east Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras from 2,000 B.C. all the way through to the Spanish Inquisition in the 17th century. The Maya particularly flourished between 200 and 850 A.D. – developing major cities (such as Tikal) amid harsh tropical rainforests, and erecting large monuments that are still standing today.

Maya temple located in the ancient city of Tikal in the Guatemalan rainforest. Source: Wikimedia Commons

An archaeological analysis of Tikal mineralogy shows zeolite was not present in the area except at the sites of the Tikal water reservoirs, and therefore must have been mined at other locations and transported back to the city for the purpose of water treatment.

The Maya likely constructed a simple water treatment system that channelled water from the reservoirs through the zeolite – as shown in the diagram below – allowing them to maintain reliable drinking water quality in a harsh jungle environment complicated by cyclones, seasonal droughts, and volcanic events.

Zeolite water treatment system used by the Maya two thousand years ago. Source: Tankersley, K.B., Dunning, N.P., Carr, C. et al.

Access to clean drinking water is a vital pillar of any city, and the University of Cincinnati study shows the Maya understood the treatment benefits of zeolites thousands of years before the technology was re-discovered in the 20th century.

The Tikal zeolite water treatment system was functioning around five hundred years before the South Asian sand and gravel water filtration systems described in the Sushruta Samhita (an ancient text on medicine and surgery), making it the oldest bulk water treatment system ever discovered.

The fact that this technology is still used today highlights the sophistication of ancient civilisations, and poses the question: What other important technologies were lost during the notorious dark ages of our civilisation?

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