The world will end on December 21, 2012.
You’ve likely seen doomsday proclamations like the one above—the infamous Mayan prediction—in all forms of media. Articles have been written, documentaries have been produced, books have been published. Facebook and the Twittersphere have been exploding with references to the Mayan calendar and the prophecy that the world will end on December 21.
Many people are truly agonized and frightened about the “Mayan prophecy.” But what in the world is this Maya-mania actually about?
The Maya and Their Calendars
The ancient Maya were a sophisticated Mesoamerican civilization spread out from southern Mexico through much of Central America. Renowned for their impressive architecture and well-developed culture, these ancient people left behind a legacy in hieroglyphics. The Mayan image-based script was one of the first writing systems ever created.1
For decades, archaeologists and linguists attempted to break the code of the Mayan language.2 Throughout the twentieth century, people became increasingly successful at deciphering the glyphs until eventually we were able to read Mayan language.
With this knowledge came the realization that the Maya had also created and maintained calendar systems. The Maya had even effectively utilized these time systems and their familiarity with astronomy to predict precise dates of lunar and solar eclipses.3
Notably, the Mayan concept of time is distinct from the linearity of our contemporary understanding. The Maya saw time as more fluid and cyclical. That is, they saw time as a series of repeated cycles.4
The “Mayan Prophecy”
When people speak of the “end date” of December 21, 2012, they are referring to the last date marked on the Long Count calendar, a Mayan time system. Beginning with the Mayan date of creation, this calendar has been in play for five thousand years.
On December 21, a great cycle in the Long Count calendar will come to a close. The date also coincides with this year’s winter solstice. It’s these facts that have some people speaking of apocalypse.
With doomsday on the mind, many people look at the natural disasters, wrongdoings, and political upheaval in the world as evidence of the end times. Others speak of a coming planetary alignment with the sun and the Milky Way that will provide us with a rediscovery of cosmic balance.6
The Cycle of Life
However, archaeologists and Mayan scholars argue that these proclamations are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar system.
For starters, the Maya used not one but a number of calendars. “One of the calendars turns over, much like an odometer, on December 21 or 23, 2012, signifying a day of celebration for the Maya, not the end of the world,” commented Drs. Brigitte Kovacevich and Michael Callaghan, both archaeologists specializing in Mesoamerica.7
Moreover, the Maya also predicted events that remain four thousand years in the future, indicating that even they did not see 2012 as the concrete end of the world.8
Harvey Bricker, professor emeritus of anthropology and a researcher with Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute, explains it this way: “The Maya calendar will not end in 2012. It is the end of one calendrical unit. It’s not the end of the calendar or the end of the world.”9
Even NASA has released statements concerning the Mayan prediction. They strive to reassure the populace that the end of the world is not coming anytime soon, particularly not according to the Mayan calendar.
“Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then—just as your calendar begins again on January 1—another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar,” wrote NASA.10
Alonso Mendez, archeo-astronomer for the Maya Exploration Center in Palenque, Mexico,11 remarked: “This system is a particular system that was developed for and by Maya, for their particular ideology, for their particular place in the world. It would be a mistake to rally around a philosophy that has its place in its history and in its world and appropriate it as something that belongs to a global sense.”12
The End of the World as We Know It?
So why all the fuss? Could it be that we all just love the drama, the excitement of a good story, the thrill of the suspense?
One thing’s for sure: we’re becoming inundated with the apocalypse. Schools are even beginning to teach courses on the subject, like Brown University’s “Living in the End Times.”13
Based on the information given by the experts, it seems the Mayan prediction will go the way of Y2K, 6/06/06, and countless comets and asteroids headed straight for Earth—out with, not a bang, but a dud.
What do you think? Will we live to see 2013?
- Cracking the Maya Code, directed by NOVA (PBS, 2008), DVD.
- Ibid. Diego de Landa, a friar bent on converting the Mayans to Catholicism after the Spanish conquest, felt that the indigenous language—which he believed to be part of the culture’s “superstitions”—needed to be eradicated. After his efforts, only four partial books survived. The writing system completely died out and “knowledge of the ancient Mayan script vanished.”
- 2012: Science or Superstition, directed by Nimrod Erez (The Disinformation Company, 2009), DVD.
- Erez, 2012: Science or Superstition.
- Brigitte Kovacevich and Michael Callaghan, “Mayan Apocalypse 2012: Fact and Fiction,” Southern Methodist University, November 16, 2012, http://www.smu.edu/News/2012/maya-apocalypse-16nov2012.
- Rivet, “The Sky Is Not Falling.”
- “Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End,” NASA, November 13, 2012, http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html#end.
- Palenque is one of the main sites of ancient Mayan civilization that has been excavated today.
- Erez, 2012: Science or Superstition.
- Course description: “Doomsday predictions/apocalyptic themes have become commonplace. Between ‘End of History’ theses/Mayan Calendar predictions/posthumanist theories/the Rapture, and environmental/financial collapse, it seems we are living in what many believe to be End Times.” Available at: https://selfservice.brown.edu/ss/bwckctlg.p_disp_course_detail?cat_term_in=201210&subj_code_in=HMAN&crse_numb_in=1970M (Accessed December 3, 2012).