Ancient Mayas Make Modern History an Expedition on Bikes Unlocks Secrets of Archaeology for Computer-Savvy Elementary Students

Article excerpt

THE transcontinental interview started with a glitch. There in steamy Quirgua, Guatemala, Dan Buettner parked his battered, mud-covered bicycle. He positioned his portable satellite dish and turned on his laptop to answer a reporter's questions asked the day before by satellite from a computer in Boston.

Nothing.

"Using cutting-edge technology and expecting it to work on the back of a bicycle has been frustrating," Mr. Buettner said later over the Internet. He is the leader of MayaQuest, an interactive archaeological bicycle expedition now completing an arduous, bug-filled expedition through Central America to study the demise of Mayan civilization. From AD 250 the Maya flourished, but disappeared for unknown reasons in the ninth century.

Unlike conventional expeditions, MayaQuest used a portable satellite dish and laptop computer to connect "live" from the jungle with thousands of schools.

The expedition's main goal was to engage students in Mayan research by being "live" on the Internet and Prodigy. Connecting an ongoing, gritty adventure to cyberspace meant students in classrooms could ask questions, receive expedition updates, and sometimes vote on expedition issues such as the team's destination from day to day. A 16-page MayaQuest curriculum guide was available to schools.

Twice a week for the last three months, the team of four provided descriptions of their muddy journey through Mayan country. Stories of snakes, ticks, tomb discoveries, hieroglyphic readings, and more than 100 flat tires were sent by satellite.

A dispatch of humor and reality came from Buettner near Rio Dulce: "It's 10:06 p.m., and I'm sitting cross-legged in my tent typing the date. Outside we are surrounded by banana trees; the buzz of a thousand insects fills the hot, heavy night air.... We bicycled on lumber trails. They were full of ruts, weeds, fallen logs and every blood-sucking vermin imaginable, but at least they had character.... One night a jaguar came into camp."

Buettner is one of the world's premier long-distance cyclists and previously wheeled his way through AfricaTrek, a nine-month African journey. His brother, Steve, rode on MayaQuest along with Julie Acuff, an archaeologist and epigrapher -- translator of Mayan hieroglyphics. Some two-dozen sponsors supplied equipment and expertise to the team.

To date, more than a million "hits" (connections) have been made on MayaQuest on the Internet. And through CNN, the team also provided five-minute, weekly reports on video for many schools. …