Pressurized Water in the New World
The ancient Maya are seen for some reason as excellent builders
but as no more than mediocre engineers,
while the Romans are praised for their engineering skill.
The Romans used a ridiculous numbering system.
They could, with a lot of effort, do addition, so they could
keep track of some logistical details.
But the sort of mathematics you need to do true engineering
design and analysis is far beyond the Roman numeral system.
Maya Masters of Water
During the Classic Maya period, roughly 250-600 CE,
the Maya people built an elaborate system of water management.
They weren't the first in the world to control water pressure.
The Minoans on Crete used terracotta pipes to create fountains
as early as 1400 BCE.
But the Maya people were the first we know of in the western hemisphere.
Their water system in the seventh and eighth centuries surpassed
what the Spanish invaders of the 1500s had back at home.
in today's central Mexico, was established around 100 BCE and was
the largest city in the Americas at its peak from 150 to 450 CE.
It had over 150,000 inhabitants, possibly 250,000,
making it among the largest cities in the world at the time.
It was a multi-ethnic city with quarter occupied by different people:
the Maya, and also the Nahua, Otomi, Zapotec, and Mixtec.
The Aztecs had amazed the Spanish invaders.
Hernán Cortés described their aqueducts in 1520.
The conquistador Andres de Tapia reported
that Montezuma bathed twice a day.
The Jesuit historian Francisco Javier Clavijer wrote that
all the Aztec people, not just their ruler, "bathed often,
and many of them every day".
The Florentine Codex, written with the assistance of Aztec
prisoners shortly after the Conquest, described Aztec soap,
deodorants, breath fresheners, and dentifrices.
Spaniards of that time cleaned their teeth with urine,
if at all.
The Moors had invaded Spain, so the Spanish people saw the
cleanliness of the Islamic invaders as a sign of their heresy,
so their own dirtiness must be a Christian virtue.
The Maya water management system at Palenque supported a population
of about 6,000 occupying 1,500 structures including residences,
temples, and palaces.
Pirámide de la Luna or the Pyramid of the Moon at
is 42 meters high and 150 meters wide at its base.
The Pirámide del Sol or Pyramid of the Sun,
seen above, is even larger — 70 meters high and 220 meters along
each face of its base.
They brought water from upland springs through buried conduits.
This provided water for the residential district even during the dry season.
The system provided six meters of hydraulic head, meaning that water
could flow up through pipes from the buried conduit, rising up to
six meters to where it was used.
The Maya had figured out how to reduce the cross-sectional area to
increase the pressure.
Also, their buried conduit could store an estimated 68,000 liters
of fresh water during dry periods.
There probably were many more pre-contact sophisticated water systems.
Several sites across central Mexico have yielded segmented ceramic
The tubing was tapered so the small end of one segment fit into the
large end of the next segment.
They were tightly assembled and cemented together.
For more details see the research paper by the Penn State University
team, or the overview in ScienceDaily.
"Prehispanic water pressure: A New World first",
Journal of Archaeological Science, 2010; 30(5): 1027
What About the Ball Courts?
has been played since 1400 BCE, probably earlier, and a form is
still played today by the indigenous people in a few places.
The Aztecs and other Nahuatl speakers called it ōllamaliztli,
the Mayan speakers of the Classic Era called it pitz.
The form has changed very little over 2,700 years.
It seems to have originated in tropical coastland where rubber trees
provided material for the balls.
By 1000 BCE it had spread to central Mexico, and by 300 BCE it
was spread through most of Mesoamerica, as far south as modern
Nicaragua and possibly, in a modified form, as far north as Arizona.
were built in a distinctive shape.
Initially they were a long area flanked by berms.
This evolved in later centuries to the shape of a capital I
with enclosed "end zones."
The most prominent courts were within the sacred precincts of cities and towns,
indicating the ritual nature of the game.
The games are believed to have served proxies for military conflicts.
In the later Maya Classic Era, maybe 700-1200 CE,
they involved human sacrifice.
The courts were for more than just the game.
These public ritual spaces hosted a wide range of elite cultural events
including other types of sporting events,
feasts, festivals, and musical performances.
But what about the bathrooms for the spectators?
People have asked.
I don't know, I haven't seen anything on this.
But given the advanced water supplies and public sanitation systems
of the Mesoamerican civilizations, I'm sure they were quite nice.
The invading Spanish conquistadors were surprised.
And I would expect that today's fans of U.S. professional and college sports
would also find them a step up from what they're used to using at ball games.
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