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UC San Diego Scientists Unearth Mysterious Maya Artifact

Evening Edition

Aired 2/28/17 on KPBS News.

How did a large jade pendant fit for a king end up in the hinterlands of the Maya civilization, and what might it tell us about how they dealt with a changing climate?

A team of San Diego scientists was not expecting to find a precious jade pendant fit for a Maya king during a recent dig in southern Belize. But in 2015, they dug up the second largest Maya jade ever found in Belize, and they said their discovery may provide a snapshot of a civilization beset by climate change.

The jade pendant was unearthed in Nim Li Punit, Belize. At the height of Maya civilization, this site would've been more of a frontier outpost than a central metropolis.

"It was very unexpected to find this there," said UC San Diego anthropology professor Geoffrey Braswell, who co-authored a recent paper about the discovery in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.

The pendant would have been worn by a Maya king during rituals meant to bring about rain. Braswell said it was probably buried during a turbulent time of unpredictable weather, which could devastate civilizations dependent on agriculture.

"What's fascinating is, at about AD 800 — around the time the Maya started to collapse — this piece was put into a tomb and buried as part of a large offering, we think to the wind god who brought the rains," he said.

The pendant includes a unique inscription not found on other examples of Maya jade. It provides the backstory of a specific Maya king, including references to cities far from Nim Li Punit, raising questions about why this jade was found in such a far-flung location. Perhaps it was a gift that traded hands as part of a regional "power play," Braswell said.

"We speculate that this piece was given to the first king who wore it in an attempt, perhaps, to form an alliance," Braswell said. "As other Maya kingdoms were playing out their cold wars and struggles against each other, they sought alliances with minor players in smaller regions."

Braswell said the burial of the pendant also tells a story about a civilization dealing with a changing climate. Though the ancient Maya lived a very different existence than humans today, Braswell said studying this period of decline is resonant with the profound climate change facing current human civilization.

"We're focusing on those periods of collapse to see how they adapted to changing environments, because that's going to become necessary in our own lifetime," Braswell said.

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