Last August, shifting sands on a well-trafficked beach along Oahu’s west coast revealed 400-year-old carvings left behind by Hawaiian indigenous people. The 17 petroglyphs etched into the sandstone on Waianae Coast, and the stories they tell, had never been recorded. Without the right conditions, they may have remained hidden for years or centuries.
Archaeological sites like the one in Hawai‘i, or ancient buried pyramids and tombs in Egypt, open up their secrets when the conditions are right, but sometimes even plainly visible ruins hold mysteries. Mesa Verde’s astounding Cliff Palace and other Pueblo sites provide insight into the continent’s past civilizations to Washington State University researchers Tim Kohler and Kyle Bocinsky, and their colleagues. As more data and evidence become evident, the archaeologists can posit that, despite relative technological sophistication, wealth inequality and climate change had a major role in the violent social collapse of several Pueblo eras.
Sometimes problems hidden in our own society rise in our awareness, and that consciousness helps us seek solutions. Food waste is a prime example: We waste $165 billion worth of food per year in the United States; much of it ends up rotting and spewing methane out of landfills. If we could redirect even a small percentage of that wasted food to people who need it, as WSU Extension and others are doing, we’d make steps toward solving several problems.
Career paths also form out of a combination of factors—background, timely intervention by teachers, luck. For Kelvin Lynn, a WSU materials engineer and physicist, those factors put him in the lab instead of possibly a jail cell. Thanks to his teachers, the Regents professor directed his intellect and energy to science despite his troubled youth. Now, Lynn and his current and former students make and purify industrial crystals to improve thin-film solar panels and filter radiation in medical scanners, among other technological improvements.
Technology also helps WSU’s Nic Lloyd monitor and explain weather, but even with these tools, odd and unexpected things will emerge with the right circumstances. Last year was so wet, the Pacific Northwest witnessed a massive fruiting of mushrooms. My own yard was peppered with them.
The fungi are gone, and sands have once again covered those Hawaiian beach petroglyphs. We know more, though, because the right conditions revealed them. Mycologists can study the mushroom explosion, and archaeologists will protect the carvings. With emergence comes awareness, and thus to understanding and perhaps the resolution of problems.