What length of time is the test of sustainability? 100 years? 200?
Imagine this scene: you are with an archaeological team, including local Peruvian macheteros, exploring the East Flank of Machu Picchu. You are treading carefully, wary of poisonous snakes, when your colleague spots a barely distinguishable mound swelling under gnarled vines and covered with thick earth. You all take turns pulling off the vegetation and scraping away the muck with your hands, liberating the carved stone surface until an Inca ceremonial fountain is revealed.
Light dapples the ground through the jungle canopy as your team clears away 400 years of detritus clogging the canal to the fountain. Water fills the channel as if by magic and flows into the fountain, creating an arcing jet of water. The exhausted crew is refreshed by the gushing water, which after a minute runs clear, cold and delicious.
The above experience numbers among my most fulfilling as a paleohydrologist, and illustrates the sustainability of Inca design. Not only was it inspiring to see the fountain gush into life after four centuries of lying dormant in the forest under accumulated earth and debris, but its operation told us much about the talented engineers who designed the hydraulic system 450 years before.
It was in July 1996 that the Wright Paleohydrological Institute archaeological exploration team discovered this Inca ceremonial fountain under thick vegetation and covered with earth. Our Quechua macheteros conducted a religious ceremony where Pachamama, the Earth Mother, was asked to keep the fountain flowing forever. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.
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Paleohydrology is “the study of water use and handling by ancient people.”