A Student-Directed Expedition

Rachel Hefte

Imagine that you are riding your bike along a bumpy dirt road. The air is warm and moist, the scenery is a deep beautiful green of tangled growth. You are tired, really tired, from pedal pushing all day. Suddenly, you see a huge triangular structure ahead, with what looks like a long escalator of stairs that go to the top! What a magnificent sight! What is it? Who made it? Why is it so high?

This imaginary scenario of discovering a majestic pyramid, built by people of the ancient Mayan civilization, will come to life for teachers and students beginning this February during MayaQuest, a modern day interactive expedition. Dan Buettner, an adventure cyclist, his brother Steve, and two team members will cycle the back roads through the rain forest of Central America to explore Mayan ruins in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras.

Laptop computers and a satellite modem will link the cyclists to schools and homes where students will direct the 3-month expedition using Classroom PRODIGY, an on-line computer service with more than two million subscribers. Interacting with the team, students will help the cyclists decide what they should pack, which active Maya site to explore, what local foods to prepare, and/or which Maya expert to consult.

During the 12-week expedition, MayaQuest participants will find additional interdisciplinary learning opportunities available:
The CNN Newsroom will broadcast weekly reports, and a toll-free hotline (1-800-919-MAYA) will provide updates and other information. Classroom PRODIGY and the Internet forum will support educators with resources as they utilize a 16-page curriculum guide and a MayaQuest map that contain lessons on ancient cultures, geography, environmental perspectives, archaeological digs, hieroglyphs, Maya math, animals of the rain forest, and more.
Mayanism has been transformed from an esoteric academic discipline into one of the hottest fields of scientific inquiry over the past 30 years (Lemonick & Garcia, 1993). Students will share in the excitement of new discoveries at the Maya ruins via computer technology. They will be encouraged to formulate hypotheses, pose questions to the archaeologists at particular sites, and consider problems pivotal to their research. Archaeologist Peter Dunham (1994) suggests, “Students may not give us the exact answer, but they may force us to look at problems in new ways that could lead to the answer.” Connections between the ancient Mayan civilization and present day civilizations also form a significant aspect of the study.

The Ancient Maya

Many archaeologists have concluded that the Maya, who flourished during the Classic Period (A.D. 250-900), perfected the most complex writing system in the hemisphere. In addition to building massive pyramids in the heart of Central America, the Maya also mastered mathematics and designed astrological calendars of astonishing accuracy. The Maya were also brilliant managers of the rain forest. Utilizing alluvial pockets, they raised fields and terraced the earth to sustain populations dozens of times bigger than the same land supports today (Stuart, 1992). Recent decoding of hieroglyphic writing suggests that within the brief time frame of a century, the Maya translated the politics of village life into the politics of governance, a social innovation that enabled them to exhibit complex systems, far beyond their contemporaries in Europe (Schele & Grube, 1994).

The Mystery

The Maya abandoned their majestic temples during the 9th century and let the jungle reclaim nearly a millennia of learning. Why the Mayan civilization collapsed is not fully understood. Researchers point to a variety of factors including overpopulation, deforestation, wars, natural disasters, and disease (Lemonick, 1993). The most compelling hypotheses suggest that it was a combination of factors. Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle, a Honduran archaeologist at the Copan site, believes there was “an imbalance between man and nature” (Watson, 1994).
The mystery of the ancient Maya, the search for the clues to explain the drastic changes in their society, offers MayaQuest participants a chance to take on the role of archaeologist, historian, ecologist, meteorologist, or geologist. Did the Mayan civilization change slowly or very suddenly? Did their civilization actually collapse? Why did the Maya abandon their cities, the pyramid sites? Where did they go?

The MayaQuest team will be exploring three primary factors that may help to explain the mystery of the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization: a) regional warfare, b) environmental mismanagement, and c) natural disasters. Conflicts that led to warfare and the effect of overpopulation on the environment are examples of underlying causes which may have been contributing factors. The late, renowned Maya scholar, Sir Eric Thompson, attributes the collapse to “peasant uprising” after the building of the pyramids (Garrett, 1989). Thus, injustice and social unrest may prove to be a viable hypothesis.
Maya sites, such as the two described below, offer a glimpse of both current research and hypotheses, and the actual archaeologists working in the field. Additional site information is available online.

Caracol, Belize

Caracol, Belize is one of the Maya sites that the team will visit. As a Classic Period city-state, Caracol eclipsed rival Tikal following a war in A.D. 562. Arlen and Diane Chase, a husband and wife archaeologist team, have hypothesized that warfare was largely responsible for Caraco#146;s abrupt extinction (Lemonick and Garcia, 1993). War victories over Tikal yielded enough loot to support the ambitious Maya and turn Caracol into a boom town. The Chase team point to evidence found at the site—burn marks on buildings, the unburied body of a 6-year-old child lying on the floor of a pyramid, and an increase in war imagery on the late monuments. Drs. Arlen and Diane Chase are interested in a response to the question, “If a city lost 160,000 inhabitants overnight, what would you expect to see?”

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Another site the team will visit is Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico.
This Maya city, a late Classic center, flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries A.D. The city’s art and architecture reflect Maya influence, Toltec influences, and developments due to Mexican connections as well. For example, the Sacred Cenote, a natural well, was the focus of offerings to the rain god. Pottery, incense, jewelry, and even human sacrifices have been discovered in the well.
“Archaeology is a non-renewable resource,” laments Dr. Larry Desmond (1994). During 1995, without disturbing a handful of dirt, he will search for a cave under Chichen Itza’s pyramid, El Castillo (the castle), which is an important link to the Maya underworld. The use of Ground Penetrating Radar enables Desmond to explore deep beneath Chichen Itza’s temples to compose amazingly accurate portraits of preceding settlements and underground structures. Online participants will have the opportunity to interpret Dr. Desmond’s data, thereby assisting him with his search.

Contemporary Significance

The experience of the ancient Maya offer us a mirror to reflect upon our own society and the current state of the world. Each of the possible factors utilized to explain the sudden decline of the Mayan civilization offer stark parallels to today’s headlines. At a time when tribal warfare is destroying Rwanda, when the modern day Maya are revolting in southern Mexico, and our rain forests are disappearing at the rate of one acre per minute, the answers still buried in and around the ancient Maya ruins take on a strong contemporary significance.

Besides connecting with archaeologists at different sites and joining their research efforts, the cyclist team will explore the traditions and culture of the contemporary Maya. While the ancient Maya civilization collapsed over 1000 years ago, at least six million indigenous Maya live today in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras (Sommers, 1993). Despite great adversity, the Maya have survived and managed to maintain some of their ancient traditions.

Today, the contemporary Maya work on plantations, where export crops like coffee and sugar are grown for U.S. consumption. Poverty, malnutrition, discrimination, exploitation, and government repression and ethnocide are current struggles for the Maya.
Since the early 1980s, Maya have fled their native lands and moved to other countries as refugees.
Many thousands of Maya now live in California, Colorado, Arizona, and other parts of the country.
During the expedition, MayaQuest encourages teachers and students to invite indigenous speakers into their classrooms to learn more about the contemporary struggles and traditions of the Maya, whether in Mexico, Central America, and/or the U.S. University or Central America solidarity groups can suggest possible speakers.
Rigoberta Menchu, a Maya (Quiche) Indian, won the 1992 Noble Peace Prize for her fight for human rights and dignity for her people in Guatemala. An excellent resource for teachers to gain a deep understanding of current issues and solutions to the injustice is the book, I, Rigoberta Menchu. Other excellent resources that provide an overview of Mayanism include articles by Roberts (1991) and Garrett (1989).

MayaQuest Resources

The MayaQuest Teacher Guide developed by the Center for Global Environmental Education at Hamline University in Minnesota and a ruin site map designed by Nystrom contain lessons that provide background information on the Maya and creative activities for the classroom. Both are available from Earthtreks. Send a 9 x12 envelope ($1.21 self-addressed, stamped postage) to MayaQuest, 529 S. 7th St., Suite 310, Minneapolis, MN 55415. While the curriculum is geared toward middle school students, many primary lessons are offered as alternatives. Activities throughout the guide can be modified to meet the needs and abilities of elementary students.

In one lesson titled Creation Myths and other Tales, students can gain insight into the beliefs of traditional peoples like the Maya. The first activity encourages small groups of students to learn a myth from any culture and present it to the class as an action scene or as a dialogue. In another activity, students compare the creation stories of the Maya with those of other indigenous peoples of the Americas. One fable, The Tail of the Dog, is found in a valuable book by Mayan archaeologist, Victor Montejo (1991), The Bird Who Cleans the World and Other Maya Fables. Students will have a chance to discuss this fable and others on Classroom PRODIGY.
Lessons also focus on environmental perspectives, conflicts that caused war, and Mayan time keeping. What follows is a sample from one lesson that explores the importance of rain forest animals to the Maya.

Jaguars, Quetzals, and Other Animals: A Lesson Excerpt

Many rain forest animals were considered sacred by the ancient Maya. The quetzal, one of the world’s most beautiful birds, was cherished for its iridescent blue-green tail plumes. The jaguar, ranging up to 8 feet in length, is the largest of all American cats.
A sign of royalty and priesthood, the jaguar was also an important symbol to the Maya. K’inich Ahau, the Maya sun god, is frequently associated with the jaguar.


• Generate a list of animals living in the Central American rain forest. Have student pairs pick one animal and research its characteristics and behaviors. Then choose what this animal might symbolize, such as power, wisdom, speed, rain, etc.
• The Maya believe that each person has a nagual-an, an animal or animal spirit with which they identify. What animal from any part of the world would you choose as a symbol to represent you? What animal would a parent or another adult close to you choose for you?

Discussion Questions

• Jaguars are considered a keystone species in the rain forest food chain; a change in their numbers upsets the balance of the ecosystem. What are some ripple effects when jaguars lose their homes or die?
• The Maya worshipped the god Kukulkan, or Feathered Serpent, and only priests and rulers were allowed to wear the feathers of the quetzal. How might this practice have prevented the endangerment of the quetzal?

Beyond Traditional
Social Studies

Learning adventures, like MayaQuest, are expanding the boundaries of traditional education. Adventures with renowned academics and experts, interactive graphics, comprehensive communications features, and engaging classroom-to-classroom-related activities increase student motivation and curiosity (Novelli, 1994). MayaQuest is an innovative opportunity for both teachers and students. Mysteries are waiting to be solved; hieroglyphic texts need to be deciphered. Once you are online, the teacher’s guide and additional resources on the Internet forum and Classroom PRODIGY will create adventure excitement.

Buettner, D. (1994). Sovietrek. Minneapolis: Lerner.
Desmond, L. (1994, April) Interview with Dan Buettner. Minneapolis: Earthtreks, Inc.
Dunham, P. (1994, April) Interview with Dan Buettner. Minneapolis: Earthtreks, Inc.
Garrett, W. E. (1989). La Ruta Maya. National Geographic, 176(4), 424-450, 463- 478.
Lemonick, M. D., & Garcia, G. (1993, August 9). Secrets of the Maya, pp. 44-50.
Montejo, V. (1991). The bird who cleans the world and other Maya fables. (W. Kaufman, Trans.). Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press (321 Jackson Street, Willimantic, CT 06226).
Novelli, J. (1994, February). It’s a whole new world. Instructor:
The Whole Teacher’s Handbook, pp. 51-54.
Roberts, D. (1991). The decipherment of Ancient Maya. The Atlantic Monthly, 10, 87-100.
Schele, L., & Grube, L. (1994). Maya Hieroglyphics. Proceedings of the Hieroglyphic Conference. Austin: Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas.
Sommers, M. (1993). Rigoberta Menchu: The prize that broke the silence. An Activity-based Educational Packet. Minneapolis: Resource Center of The Americas (317 17th Ave. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414, 612/627-9450).
Stuart, G. E. (1992). Maya heartland under siege. National Geographic, 182(5), 94-107.
Watson, C. (1994, October 23). Copan on the route of the Maya. Star Tribune, Minneapolis: MN.

About the Author
Rachel Hefte is a social studies educator and one of the curriculum specialists who designed the MayaQuest Teacher Guide. She is also
a trainer and consultant for Project CREATE, a school-based conflict resolution program.

Author’s Note:
Earthtreks, Inc., an educational adventure corporation based in Minneapolis, is organizing MayaQuest. Dan Buettner, founder of Earthtreks, is the author of Sovietrek (1994), which chronicles a 12,888-mile bike ride around the world. Dan also led a cycling team through 12,107 miles of African rain forests, wild life savannas, and the Sahara Desert.
Sponsors of MayaQuest include MECC, PRODIGY, and a number of other businesses. Classroom PRODIGY has sponsored other adventures, including Norman D. Vaughan’s 1993 dogsled trip in the Antarctic and Ocean Challenge,
the sailboat race from San Francisco to Boston, around Cape Horn. MECC has recreated the Africatrek in learning adventure software (see Teacher Resources). After MayaQuest is completed by the team, MECC will produce a CD-ROM that captures this event’s excitement in an educational multimedia format.