ENGINEERS OF THE PAST
I staggered along
the dry creek bed, sinking ankle-deep in pools of dry sand and stumbling
over an occasional cobblestone, past sugar cane fields dancing in the
breeze. A few cottonwoods
at the edge of the valley provided me a brief respite from the burning
sun, before I ventured out to the cactus country again. At
every few steps, I scanned the barren foothills, above desert hackberries
and creosotes, for the largest known prehispanic water retaining structure
in the American continent. The
panoramic photographs from Woodbury and Neely’s book had etched deep in my mind
a wall of well-packed rock, topped by a bell-shaped mound of earth.
I was searching for the remains of the Purron Dam, a huge earth
and rock pile that plugged the seasonal flow of the creek, creating
a reservoir that had been nourishing the valley below for 1500 years,
according to the archaeologists. As a civil engineer involved in building many dams, I now felt
the anxiety of a devout Muslim on the road to Mecca.
Suddenly, a long wall of rectangular blocks
of rock, jutting out of the hillside on my right, caught my eye.
I scrambled out of the creek bed and ran to higher ground to catch
a better view. The wall looked
like a perfect masonry job --cut blocks of rock placed in neat rows with
little mortar, except, it extended deep into the hill. This
time, the credit belonged to the nature.
It was a ten-foot thick layer of sedimentary rock, broken into
thin leaves as the mountain above eroded away, and exposed recently by
gravel mining. I began to
feel in my limbs the stinging pain from getting whacked and scratched
by vines and cacti during the run up.
started to doubt the wisdom of the archaeologists.
Did they know what they were looking at?
Would anyone build a dam this far above the valley, in a
stream this small? Is
there a big basin to store enough water?
Had the archaeologists been fooled by some strange
geological formation? If
I can’t even guess where the dam should be… my 20 years of
dust-breathing, sweat-bleeding civil engineering experience was on
Armed with only a sketchy map, I plunged
solo into this thorny wilderness of the Tehuacan valley of Puebla, Mexico,
trusting my sense of engineering and orienteering.
Since the archaeological investigations were some 40 years old,
I inquired in Mexico City for the present conditions at the site.
Two archaeologists who had visited the site guaranteed I could
locate it easily, though no one had attempted to restore nor mark off
the site since. No doubt
they assumed I would hire a guide from the closest town, as they had.
Yet, I wanted the gratifying exhilaration of stumbling upon the
ruins on my own.
|| I caught the last bus from Oaxaca
City to Teotitlán del Camino at the border with Puebla, spent the night
there, and took an early bus towards San Rafael --the last village in Puebla.
Though a complete stranger to the area, my fluent Spanish and my
“mexican-look” allowed me to gather information on the street without raising
eyebrows. Paying attention
to passing topographical features, I located the crossing of the stream
Lencho Diego in which the dam was built, and got off the bus.
No houses were nearby. I
followed a footpath by the stream, crossed the modern irrigation canal that
feeds the sugar cane fields and walked along the dry creek bed into the
arid foothills. For the next
two hours, I searched for the dam along many branches of the stream, wiggling,
creeping and crawling among saguaros, magueys and ocotillos but all in vain.
Dejected, I turned back. Hearing
a farmer at work in the cane fields, I approached him and sheepishly explained
Having traveled all over the United States as a migrant worker for
decades, Don Cornelio Gonzalez immediately took pity on this lost
soul. He owns a large
part of the cane fields and also the adjoining land where I was
roaming without permission. He brushed my apologies aside “you didn’t come to steal
anything, right? I
know many crazy gringos who love to travel.”
After listening to
stories of his memorable travels north of the border, I inquired
about the ancient dam.
“No, I have
never heard of such a thing in this valley!” he said.
In Mexico, a prehispanic ruin would draw the attention of the authorities,
and hence the general public, only if the structure is pyramidal or if
prominent sculptures were found.
Still, he had important information to share: a large branch of
the stream flowed from a direction I hadn’t explored yet.
lot, for being kind enough to help even an intruder” I said, and hurried
towards my last hope. It
was while scrambling up this branch that the visually illusive sedimentary
rock formation fooled me.
Now guilt nagged at me. Only
minutes ago, in front of Don Gonzalez, I glorified the Purron Dam.
Moreover, I had used it as an example in academic speeches
and technical articles, praising the designs of ancient engineers
for efficiently using the only resources they had in abundance:
manpower and time.
X-section and profile of 4 stages of Purron
|The archaeologists estimated that the 50-foot
high, 1500-foot long earthfill dam had been built in four stages, spanning
over 1000 years. Once the reservoir
behind the dam silted up, ending its useful life, the next stage was built
on top, to increase the storage capacity of the lake. The
previous stage provided a solid foundation for the new dam, which saved
effort and time in earthmoving, and created a lake much larger than what
one generation could build with the simple tools at hand.
However, such a utilitarian design required a long-range vision and
the political will to spend extra resources at the initial stages of the
structure so that later stages can be added. This contrasts starkly against
the modern money-driven philosophy, on which every thing is designed to
last barely a marginal shift in market value.
archaeological data hinted at a remarkable construction technique
that cleverly resolved both a mechanical and a labor management
investigators had noticed a series of roughly built stone walls
within the eroded out cross section of the dam. The walls apparently formed a large grid of roughly 12-foot
square rooms covering the entire base of the dam, which were
filled and compacted with rubble and earth.
Since manual tools do not compact large volumes
efficiently, this technique helps achieve a dense dam core to
prevent water leakage.
In ancient times,
such massive civil works were built using unpaid, voluntary or
tributary labor, numbered in the thousands, but comprised of
smaller cohesive units representing individual communities or
clans. Instead of
trying to regiment this motley crowd under one command, early
engineers evidently opted for a design that permitted smaller
groups of laborers to work independently, each filling one or more
Black moss on arroyo bank
| I knew that if I gave up now --having believed
without proof the archaeological interpretation of Purron dam, doubts would
haunt my research forever. So,
I chugged along the creek bed, determined to explore all possible dam sites
upstream. A sudden stirring
of dry underbrush scared me: a rattler?
I fixed my sights on the path ahead. A
large mass of black moss, hanging from eroded roots on the left bank, was
rocking back and forth in slow motion. I recalled warnings about tropical
ants, bunched in balls waiting to attack en masse and devour the prey in
minutes. Could they be present
in the desert too? Is my endeavor
worth all this trouble? I stopped
to take stock.
|That’s when I saw it.
Exactly as I had imagined.
Just before the creek wiggles out of a narrow canyon and fans down
to the gently sloping valley, a huge mass of earth had plugged it.
Eroded cross-section of the dam
Internal walls of the dam
The occasional floods had breached a
30-foot wide section of the dam, leaving a 50-foot tall, 200-foot long
vertical section. The cacti
had taken over the top of the dam, but the generally arid climate had
preserved the structure’s cross section intact –a full scale architectural
rendering of construction details. I could immediately identify the internal
rubble walls rising up to the level of each construction stage, unsorted
earth-and-rock roomfills, and the wide, neatly assembled retaining wall
of well-cut blocks of rock.
Masonry wall inside the dam
The ancient engineers had picked the best possible site for the
dam. In the first
couple of hours of exploration, my ant’s view of the topography
had fooled me into believing that the stream ended at the wall of
hills facing me, because a geological accident had prevented the
stream from coming down along the handle of the spoon-shaped
valley. Somehow, the
major branch of the stream had carved its way through a
well-concealed gap in the left flange of the valley. The dam was built right behind the gap. The abutting hills supplied sufficient material for the dam
builders to block the creek, creating a basin large enough to
capture the sporadic floods of the catchment stretching to the
hazy mountains in the horizon.
The stored water had enough gravitational force to travel
to every corner of the valley below. (Unfortunately, the archaeologists had not investigated in
detail the technology involved in the water distribution network.)
Catchment basin of the arroyo
Now I can confidently advocate reviving the ancient technology
as a cure for the disastrous flops of modern civil engineering.
In the mad rush to modernize, most impoverished societies transplant
engineering designs prepared for utterly different situations, geographically,
environmentally and socio-politically.
Consequently, many projects become museums of white elephants,
dragging these societies deeper into the economic bog.
In contrast, indigenous engineering projects embody thousands of
years of experience, their techniques having successfully weathered local
In many localities, even the socio-political conditions
remain the same since the ancient times, except probably the notion
of self-reliance. Unskilled
labor, many communities’ only marketable resource remains underutilized
in favor of heavy machinery. To
offset the burdensome costs of operating such fancy tools, the engineers
tout the ability to complete a task in a hurry.
Yet, most projects sit idle or operate below capacity for years
because of lags in other infrastructure and bureaucratic corruption.
Thus, to improve the conditions at impoverished societies, the
best strategy may be to plan a project well and build it slowly at the
pace of manual labor.
After Purron dam, I opted to relax at the coastal village
of Tecolutla, Veracruz, where the people were just recovering from a disastrous
flood that had wiped out entire blocks of houses and hotels.Further down
the Atlantic coast, the city of Villahermosa and other lowland municipalities
suffered worse during that rainy season. The Grijalva River, bordering
the city, has 3 large reservoirs upstream, supposedly built for flood
control as well as for power generation. The lowlanders, with water up
to their rooftops, blamed sudden water releases from upriver dams for
much of the damage.
A beach house in Tecolutla
The heated political climate and the overly
secretive government business practices prevented the truth from surfacing.
Yet, many a time, the nature has caught the modern engineers napping,
surrounded by outdated and malfunctioning equipment, yet falsely secure
in their "nature-conquering" mindset.
Time has come to rethink the way we tackle
the nature. Instead of hiding under delusive and costly protection schemes,
we should face the nature on an even footing and learn to live in harmony
with it. May be we should ask how the Purron dam engineers, with no fancy
gates available to them, would have tackled the flood.
26th June, 2000.
Feel free to send
me email if you'd like to begin a
dialogue. Write to me