The Mayan Apocalypse of 2012: Part 1 – The Maya

I’m guessing you’ve heard the prediction that the world will end on December the 21st 2012? You’ve probably seen the film too. But do you know where this prediction comes from, and how likely it is to come true?

There are lots of versions of the prophecy, with lots of different causes for the end of the world. In this post I’ll describe the prediction itself and look at who the Maya were. Then in following posts I’ll look at some of the predicted astronomical causes of destruction, like cosmic alignments and solar storms, some of the terrestrial causes of destruction, such as a polar-reversal and crustal displacement, and I’ll make a conclusion about how likely all of this is to happen.

Why am I writing about this on an astrobiology blog? Because the prediction deals with various disasters that could wipe-out life on Earth, and I’m interested in astronomy, geology and mass extinctions. Also, if such events could happen here, they maybe they could happen to alien civilisation too, and could help explain why we haven’t yet found conclusive proof for the existence of intelligent aliens (see the Fermi Paradox).

Lots of people have attacked and defended the 2012 prediction, some of them a little too zealously, I promise to look at all of this with a fair and open-mind, because a lot of people are seriously worried about the predictions and they deserve to read an accurate description and a fair analysis. I won’t make fun of anyone involved. I’ll give it to you straight, as they say…

The story begins with a Mayan calendar.

The Maya were a Native American people who lived in Central America; their civilization covered much of what are today southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, northern El Salvador and western Honduras. The Maya first appeared around 2000 BC (so around 4011 years ago), and between 2000 BC and 250 AD they primarily lived in small communities, but between 250 and 900 AD the Maya established cities, with large stepped pyramids and other stone structures, and their culture blossomed with major artistic and intellectual advances, including mathematics and astronomy.

However, around 900 AD the Mayan civilization fell, particularly in the South of their range, with many cities abandoned. No one truly knows why, but there are many good theories, from natural disasters to collapse of their food supply. Some cities survived in the North of the Mayan territories, but these fell after the arrival of the Spanish in 1511, due to a mixture of war and disease. The ruins of many ancient Mayan cities can still be seen today, and the Mayan people still live, with their descendents spread out across Central America; and some of their ancient beliefs and traditions are still practiced today.

The 2012 Apocalypse prophecy states that the Mayan calendar ends on December the 21st 2012, and that the Maya predicted either the end of the world or a time of great change at this point. Hundreds of different versions of what this means have been proposed, from the coming of an age of glorious peace and knowledge, the Biblical Apocalypse, the destruction of the Earth by a cosmic alignment, even the end of time and the Universe itself. Do a quick Google search for ‘2012’ and you’ll find hundreds of different predictions.

But how accurate is all of this?

The calendar in question is often called the Mayan Long Count calendar. However it wasn’t actually invented by the Maya, it was created earlier and used by a number of Central American civilizations, including the Olmecs and the Aztecs, so it is often more accurately called the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Although not created by the Maya, they refined the Long Count calendar into its most sophisticated form and combined it with other Mayan calendars. The Long Count calendar was based on the movements of the Sun, but the Maya were accomplished astronomers and created other calendars based on the movement of the Moon and even the movement of the planet Venus.

The Maya believed the gods created four worlds, the first three were failures but the fourth world was a success and it’s the one we’re living in today. The Maya said the fourth world started on the 11th of August 3114 BC (on our calendar), so about 5125 years ago. The Mayan Long Count calendar isn’t based on weeks, months and years like our calendar though. Its smallest unit is one day, called a k’in, 20 k’ins make a winal, 18 winals make a tun, (360 days), 20 tun make a k’atun (7,200 days) and 20 k’atun make a b’ak’tun (144,000 days or 394 years).

On the 21st of December 2012 modern scholars think the 13th b’ak’tun of the fourth world will end. And this is where the doomsday prophecy comes from, as the Maya believed that the third world lasted for 13 b’ak’tun. So if the third world lasted for 13 b’ak’tun, then will the fourth world also last for 13 b’ak’tun? And on the 21st of December will the fourth world come to an end and the fifth world begin?

The archaeologist and Mayan expert Michael D. Coe made the following statement in 1966 about the end of the 13th b’ak’tun:

“there is a suggestion … that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the thirteenth b’ak’tun. Thus … our present universe [would] be annihilated when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.”

So here we have the key to the prediction, the Mayan Long Count calendar will complete its 13th cycle in December 2012, and one Mayan scholar predicted the Maya believed that this would cause the end of the world. (Note, the expert didn’t himself believe the world would end, he thought the Maya believed this).

Was he right?

It seems that every other Mayan expert, and the surviving Maya themselves say no. Many Mayan scholars have pointed out that the Maya never talked about the end of the fourth world, they never mentioned it, not once. Maya living today have explained that their belief system contains no mention of an apocalypse, that this is an idea from Western religions, like Christianity, which modern people are trying to force onto ancient Mayan beliefs. Another Mayan archaeologist, called Jose Huchm has stated that:

“If I went to some Mayan-speaking communities and asked people what is going to happen in 2012, they wouldn’t have any idea. That the world is going to end? They wouldn’t believe you. We have real concerns these days, like rain”

Basically, if you could go back in time and speak to a Mayan, and asked them if they thought the world was going to end at the close of the 13th b’ak’tun they would have thought you were crazy. They would have been more concerned with real problems like whether there would be enough rain to grow enough crops to survive.

Still not convinced?

How about hearing from a respected Mayan elder who is living today in Guatemala? He’s called Apolinario Chile Pixtun, and he’s bored and annoyed with all this talk of an apocalypse, he confirms that the Maya did not believe in any kind of Armageddon, in is own words:

“I came back from England last year and, man, they had me fed up with this [2012] stuff.”

Apolinario Chile Pixtun

For the Maya, the beginning of a new b’ak’tun was a time for celebration, nothing more. I image it would have been a similar event to our New Year’s Eve, perhaps the New Years Eve on December the 31st 1999, we celebrated the passage of our civilization into a new Millenium, but no one seriously thought the world would end. And it’s pretty much the same for the Maya, they likely expected there to be big celebrations, but nothing more.

Maya writing rarely even mentions the end of the 13th b’ak’tun. The most famous reference to this time comes from a monument in the Tortuguero site in Mexico, where a piece of text has been translated as:

It will be completed the thirteenth b’ak’tun.

It is 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in

and it will happen a ‘seeing’

It is the display of B’olon-Yokte’

in a great “investiture”

No one is sure exactly what this means, but most experts believe it refers to a time of celebration. Apocalypse? No. Big party? Probably yes.

You will also read claims that the Mayan Long Count calendar ends on the 13th b’ak’tun, that the 21st of December 2012 is the last day in the calendar. This is completely false. The Long Count calendar has no end. Its what’s called a ‘linear calendar’, like our calendar, more days, weeks, months and years are added, and the calendar continues forever as long as there is someone to read it. It has no end. Think about it, does our calendar have an end? No, and the Mayan Long Count calendar is the same.

You may also read that the Long Count calendar has no end because its cyclical, that at the end of the 13th b’ak’tun it will cycle back around to the 1st b’ak’tun. Again, this is totally false. Some Mayan calendars were cyclical, but not the Long Count calendar, like ours, it continues in a straight line forever.

So there is no 2012 Mayan prophecy. The Maya did not predict the end of the world, ever, and their calendar does not end in 2012. Still doubtful? Well there’s more evidence against the 2012 prediction.

Some Mayan texts actually refer to events happening in this world, to the Maya, on future dates later than 2012. For example, on a panel at the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, a piece of writing mentions the celebration of the anniversary of the ruler K’inich Janaab’ Pakal’s accession to the throne, which in our calendar would happen on the 13th of October 4772 AD. Another piece of text, at Coba, mentions a date 41 billion billion billion years in the future. We can therefore be reasonably confident that the Maya did not expect the world to end any time soon, in fact they believed the world would last pretty much for ever.

This has been a long post I know, but here’s what I think are the key points:

1. The Mayan Long Count calendar reaches the end of an important cycle in December 2012, the end of the 13th b’ak’tun.

2. However the Maya did not believe the world would end at this time, in fact they didn’t even believe in any end of the world. This is a Western idea. Mayan texts even refer to events happening billions of years in the future, a clear sign they did not expect the world to end.

3. The Mayan Long Count calendar does not end on December the 21st 2012, in fact the calendar has no end, it continues forever.

So the idea of an apocalypse in 2012 does not come from the Maya, if anything we are insulting the Maya and their beliefs by claiming this. However, many people have predicted that certain dangerous events will happen in 2012 anyway, such as cosmic alignments, Solar storms and switches in the Earth’s magnetic field. Is there a real danger that the world could end in 2012, irrespective of the Maya? I’ll be looking at this in my next posts.

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