“More and more and higher-level technology” is heralded as the way that the human population will eventually get itself out of the global troubles it has wreaked. Under-researched genetically modified seeds to be sold to poor rural farmers in India; financially, socially and environmentally expensive Three Dams Project in China; and ethically dubious biofuel alternatives made in order to stem the toxic air pollution of the global transport industry. Each high-tech solution has its merits and its downfalls, of course, but do we always need to be looking forward or could we learn something from our ancestors?
Take water, for example. Technically, it makes up 65 -75% of our bodies (depending on who you ask) and 70% of the planet’s surface is water. Much of it is not useful to us as it is found in its saline form in oceans and, in the end, only about 2% of our total water supply is fresh and thus drinkable (with much of that being locked up in glaciers and polar ice-caps, although that source is being unlocked pretty fast through climate change). It does not sound much, but it is still trillions of gallons that should be enough to sustain human and other life for eternity.
In Western countries, we are fortunate enough to have drinking water available literally at our finger tips wherever we go. All we have to do is turn on the tap. Meanwhile, less fortunate nations face severe shortages of fresh, unpolluted, drinkable water. This threat to water security is predicted to be the next big trigger of global discontent leading to what some have called the impending Water Wars.So what are some of the solutions? Since developing country governments are not currently in the financial or political position to be able to purchase and install expensive high-tech water supply systems, we need some inexpensive, locally-appropriate alternatives. Anthropologists and archaeologists point to one such alternative from their study of the ancient Maya.
The Northern Guatemalan Province of Petén, for example, is home to some of the most remarkable ancient Maya sites, including the beautiful Tikal, one of the sets of the 1977 Star Wars Episode IV film. These sites signify a one-time dense population of millions of ancient Maya, who managed to survive and thrive despite the area’s characteristically thin soils, low availability of surface water, a difficult and pronounced dry/wet climatic regime, and periodic droughts. To this day, the area has never been occupied to the same density, partly because modern technology has not been able to provide solutions to these problems.
In a recent article, published by the Global Water Forum, Dr. Ezgi Akpinar Ferrand of Southern Connecticut State University and Prof. Vernon L. Scarborough of the University of Cincinnati summarise decades of research on the ancient Maya’s land-use, food production and water management systems in a changing environment. Through it, they demonstrate how using a relatively simple system of building and maintaining ponds called aguadas the Maya were able to meet their water and food security needs.
The aguadas were dug out and lined with locally sourced natural materials, such as impermeable clay, stone or plaster lining. To make it safe for consumption, the water was filtered with connecting silting tanks and capacity was increased through dredging and by building berms. In the end, given what the researchers know about the size of the aguadas found in ancient Maya sites and the climatic conditions the people were living in, they are able to conclude that this simple technology provided ample fresh, clean water for drinking and for agricultural production needs of the hundreds of thousands of Maya that once inhabited these spaces.
The authors nicely hypothesise:
“that the application of ancient Maya water management systems may present sustainable low technology solutions to increase water and food security among present-day populations living in the same ancient landscape as well as in those nations in comparable geographic areas”.
The bottom line is, at one time, human beings were able to live in harmony with the planet. As Daniel Quinn’s poignant and profound book Ishmael teaches us, somewhere along the path we lost our way. Many modern technologies that are put in place in order to solve one problem have a tendency of creating myriad others. Reaching back instead of constantly looking forward could sometimes prove be more revealing and borrowing from our ancestors could hold the key to setting us back on track.
Do you know of any other ancient technologies that can be applied to today’s challenges? Leave a reply below.
Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.
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