January 22, 2015
The Maya were good at many things. They built incredible cities and temples, developed a written language to record their accomplishments, created a calendar, and in general mastered their environment enough to thrive for about 3,000 years. But despite their endurance, the culture suffered significant loss around 900 CE. Why?
By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada via Wikimedia Commons
For many decades, archeologists have wondered what brought this civilization down. One working theory was drought. Just as California has struggled with drought for the past three years, the region that is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras may have experienced such severe lack of precipitation that most of the Maya people were extinguished.
But how do we find evidence of a drought that happened more than 1,000 years ago? Can we really tell which ancient years were dry and which were wet? Scientists believe we can, and they recently discovered another clue that points toward drought as the answer to the mystery of the Maya downfall. They found it in what’s called the Great Blue Hole, a 1,000-foot ocean crater about 40 miles off the coast of Belize.
That might sound like a strange place to learn about drought. Formed as a limestone cave system during the last ice age, the caves filled with water as sea levels rose, creating a circular basin about 400 feet deep. This huge bucket of ocean acts as a trap for sediment, where it forms layers of geological history for researchers to take core samples from and determine what the weather was doing, say, back in the year 900.
It turns out that between 800 and 1000, there were only one or two tropical storms every two decades in this region, where usually there were five or six. And while today we think of tropical storms as destructive forces of nature, they were what ancient cultures relied on to irrigate their farmlands before the invention of electric pumps. If the Maya found themselves with only one-fifth of their usual rainfall, they might not have been able to grow enough food for the civilization to survive. As advanced as they were, they were still bound by the whims of the natural world.
While most of us won’t be able to skip off to Belize for a diving expedition into the Great Blue Hole, we can see what it looks like through the powers of video – one thing the Maya didn’t manage to develop.
Friday, January 30, 2015, 5:00
McCormick Place, South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL, United States
Join us for the ALA Midwinter conference in downtown Chicago. Visit Nomad Press and take advantage of our show specials.
Show runs January 30 – February 2, 2015.
December 31, 2014
This year, as you’re typing up your resolutions and watching the ball drop in New York City, give a nod of thanks to Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. It’s thanks to him that we celebrate the New Year on January 1.
January 1 isn’t a seasonal marker. The winter solstice falls a couple weeks earlier and the earth reaches its perihelion, or closest point to the sun, this year on January 4. In fact, the earliest recordings of New Years celebrations date from Mesopotamia and usually fall around the vernal equinox in March. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians marked the New Year in September. And the ancient Greeks tipped back their champagne goblets every year around the winter solstice in December. (Actually, champagne wasn’t invented until 1531.)
When Julius Ceasar first introduced the Julian calendar in 46 BCE, January 1 was decreed the start of the New Year, but the rest of the world didn’t always listen, and still celebrated on different days. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar reiterated January 1 as the first day of the New Year, and many countries adopted that calendar as their standard. The British Empire held back, though, and subsequently so did its colonies, including the American ones. It wasn’t until 1752, when Britain adopted the reformed calendar, that Americans finally toasted the New Year on January 1.
January is named after Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. How appropriate! He is usually shown with two back-to-back faces, one looking forward and one looking behind. And isn’t that what the New Year is all about? We’re bombarded by best-of lists that celebrate the year we’ve just completed and at the same time encouraged to think ahead to what we’re going to accomplish in the coming year.
On this cusp of 2015, we at Nomad wish you and yours a very happy New Year.
December 17, 2014
Here in Vermont it’s a drizzly, cold, cloud-covered day. However, 111 years ago in Kitty Hawke, North Carolina, the sun was shining and the wind was blowing steadily from the north. Perfect conditions for flying.
The first airplane soared for 12 seconds over 120 feet (about 37 meters) of sandy ground just outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. This is a famous photograph of the moment the airplane lifts into the air with Orville Wright at the controls and Wilbur Wright running alongside.
Nowadays, we don’t think too much about hopping a plane to a distant city. Air travel is statistically safer than car travel, and it’s much faster. A trip that took a week by train a hundred years ago now takes only hours. And while we might complain about long security lines, the cost of a package of peanuts, and the inconvenience of checking baggage, it’s still far easier that strapping your steamer trunk to the back of a buggy and wrapping up in wool blankets for a long, uncomfortable trip to Grandma’s house for the holidays.
If the airplane had never been invented, would our world be as connected as it is via communication satellites? Perhaps not. Innovators first visualize a concept and then try to achieve that vision through engineering and technology. Could anyone have visualized the extent of our world before we could fly around it? If the airplane hadn’t come first, would we have ever invented spaceships? What might we have invented instead? And what are the Wright brothers of today busy inventing that will show us an entirely new part of the world that we never expected to see?
Thanks to the Wright brothers, people can travel to see the people they love, even if they’re on the other side of the earth. The Wrights took the physics of lift, thrust, and drag and used them to make a flying machine that revolutionized the way people perceived the world and our place in it.
This holiday season, if you’re one of the 5.4 million travelers expected to fly, take a moment to appreciate the Wright brothers for making your journey possible.
You can read Orville Wright’s diary entry for December 17, 1903 here. Did you learn anything surprising?