From the Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary:
Serendipity ser·en·dip·i·ty Pronunciation: -di-pə-tē noun Etymology: from its possession by the heroes of the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip 1754
: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also : an instance of this
Sometimes, when you look you find out things that you never expected to find. Unfortunately, sometimes what you find out is not always agreeable; but maybe necessary. Forewarned is forearmed, so the saying goes. Dr. John Horack of Marshall Space Flight Center’s Science and Mission Systems office alerted me to an unusual discovery made by NASA in the jungles of Guatemala.
This is the story of a series of satellites and the ground based analysis of their data. First of all, the satellites were not constructed to be an archeological tool. They were intended to monitor many things on the earth, in particular plant growth to help understand how agriculture and forestry could be improved. To do this, the instruments lofted into space looked at various spectral bands in ways the human eye cannot see. Flying over the Peten basin of Guatemala in the dry season, they collected data which amounted to plant health. Ground processing with intricate computer codes extracted patterns from the raw data. And these patterns meant something very interesting.
The Maya created a great civilization that lasted the better part of a millennium. At the time they were unsurpassed in astronomy and mathematics, especially when compared to Europe, deep in its dark ages. The Maya were on par with the great Arabian scientists and philosophers of the same era whose algebra is still bedevils schoolchildren. The Mayan empire stretched across meso-america and their influence was felt by all peoples for a thousand miles north and south.
But their civilization suddenly collapsed. We don’t really know why. Just collapsed. No record of a war, perhaps it was a plague, but nobody knows. Most of the Mayan ruins lie in the all but impenetrable forests of central America. Archeologists suspect that as late as a decade ago, less than 1% of the Mayan ruins had been studied. The Peten basin was the nexus of their homeland, today it is largely uninhabited and wild. In the middle of what amounted to a resource desert, the Maya had built a huge concentrated metroplex. The population density exceeded that of the most populated areas of China or India today. Food production, water distribution, waste management were all the subject of intense planning and construction. Until the day it was all abandoned.
Ground processing of satellite data during the region’s dry season detected subtle spectral differences in signatures from the canopy tops. In regular patterns some of the flora was more stressed — imperceptible to the human eye — than the surrounding vegetation. With GPS precision, archeological teams were sent to some of these places and discovered — ruins: aqueducts, buildings, temples, homes — an entire civilization mapped precisely by the change their foundations made to the soil.
Recent computer modeling of the local climate may give some clues as to why this happened. In the natural cycle there are periods which are drier and periods which are wetter. With proper understanding and accomodation, humans have dealt with such cycles with reasonable inconvenience. However, when the dry cycle hit central America in the 9th century, the Maya had deforested the entire region. The computer models predict that temperatures rose significantly than would have been the case if the vegetation had been intact. The hydrological cycle was interrupted because the moisture naturally exhaled by trees. The models show the rains didn’t merely diminsh, they quit altogether. Food production must have collapsed; the water system must have dried up when the reservoirs were no longer refilled. Civilization as the Maya knew it came abruptly to an end. And the people either died or walked away.
When the European explorers came 500 years later, the Maya still existed in small pockets, but they were no longer a great civilization; just another native tribe which was swept away with the others.
So what is the lesson for us? There is a lot of debate about global climate change these days. I don’t know what you think about global climate change — is it happening or not, is it man made or not — and perhaps that debate is extraneous to the central history lesson of the Maya. Here is the lesson: if you don’t understand what you are doing to your neighborhood, bad things can happen. Really bad things. So learn, understand, and adjust accordingly.
If we don’t learn anything else from the collapse of the Maya, that is probably enough.
And nobody foresaw that we would figure this out by sending satellites into space.
Serendipity — with a warning.
You can read more about it here: