The ancient Mayans may have had enough engineering know-how to master running water, creating fountains and even toilets by controlling water pressure, scientists now suggest.

Perhaps the earliest known example of the intentional creation of water pressure was found on the island of Crete in a Minoan palace dating back to roughly 1400 BC. In the New World, the ability to generate water pressure was previously thought to have begun only with the arrival of the Spanish.

Scientists investigated the Mayan center at Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. At its height, this major site, inhabited from roughly 100 to 800 AD, had some 1,500 structures — residences, palaces, and temples — holding some 6,000 inhabitants under a series of powerful rulers.

The center at Palenque also had what was arguably the most unique and intricate system of water management known anywhere in the Maya lowlands. These involved elaborate subterranean aqueducts to deal with the spring-fed streams that naturally divide the landscape and could otherwise cause flooding or erosion.

"The ancient Maya called this city Lakamha' or 'Big Water' because of its nine perennial waterways, 56 springs, and hundreds of meters of cascades," said researcher Kirk French, an archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

One peculiar finding at Palenque was a buried, spring-fed conduit some 216 feet long (66 m). While other aqueducts under the site's main plaza stayed relatively level and maintained a roughly constant width, the rectangular conduit was located on a steep slope and abruptly narrowed at its end.

Assuming this sloping conduit was smoothly plastered as the aqueducts were at Palenque, the researchers calculated the resulting water pressure could drive a fountain shooting water roughly 20 feet high (6 m).

"This finding is yet another technological achievement made by the Maya independently of the Old World," French said. "The Maya of Palenque had water pressure technology by 750 AD at the very latest and most likely much earlier."

French noted it has been speculated for decades that the palace in Palenque had running water for toilets. "Getting running water to the palace was impossible without water pressure," he said. Because of this new find, "the toilet theory isn’t so far-fetched."

Running water would have been a luxury, not a necessity.

"I actually think that the creation of water pressure at Palenque was a sign of wealth," French said. "It was definitely not necessary. They had water everywhere. The Maya of Palenque were never more than 150 meters (492 feet) from a source of water. Water pressure technology would have been useful through the display of power and knowledge, similar to how priests and shamans used astronomical events."

There may be other examples of Precolumbian water pressure throughout the Americas that have been unseen or misidentified, French said. For instance, ceramic tubes have been found at several sites throughout central Mexico.

"There is a widely held view that the Maya were not necessarily great engineers because their buildings were relatively simple," French told LiveScience. "But in regards to water management their engineering expertise was by all accounts very impressive."

During the next five years, French plans to use this focus on water in "hydroarchaeology" to shed light on aspects of past life such as droughts, population levels and settlement patterns.

French and his colleague Christopher Duffy, a hydrologist at Pennsylvania State University, detailed their findings online December 16 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.