This is part one of a series (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) covering several ways that humanity’s time on Earth could conceivably come to an end. The study of the apocalypse, known as eschatology has been a pervasive force in religion, science, and popular culture since the development of the first cultures on Earth. Some of the theories about the end of days are more plausible than others, but all are thought-provoking nonetheless. In Part One, I recount the history and science surrounding the Impending End of the Mayan Calender that has led to the popular 2012 phenomena. Cheers to the end!
It’s almost here, folks! In just five short days, the world will end – at least according to ancient Mayan predictions. The fact has been known for a long time, but as December 21st, 2012 draws closer, interest and speculation has only grown about how our world might end. Case-in-point: the movie 2012, which was completely inaccurate scientifically but still turned many people into doomsday preppers. But who were the Mayans, what were there predictions, and how reliably to they point to a 2012 apocalypse?’
The Original American Empire
The Mayan civilization was unquestionably one of the most advanced and enduring Mesoamerican cultures in pre-European America. Believed to have been established as early as 2,000 BC in and around the Yucatan Peninsula in modern-day Mexico, the Maya are known by archaeologists and historians alike as having one of the earliest systems of written language and mathematics – not to mention beautiful art and architecture that still survives to this day. The Maya also had a highly developed mythology and religion; they believed in many, many Gods, and ceremoniously sacrificed humans as a means of appeasing them. However, it was the culmination of all these things that led to one of the things that the Maya are best known for – an incredibly advanced knowledge of astronomy.
It was astronomy that allowed the Maya to meticulously document countless measurements of space and time. The Dresden Codex is one of only four surviving Maya codices and contains the highest concentration of the civilization’s surviving astronomical data. Lunar eclipses, the movements of Venus, and even ritual schedules display the incredible sophistication and accuracy with which the Maya viewed the stars. In fact, astronomy played a part in almost every facet of Mayan life; even the buildings were made to face a certain direction so as to be in perfect alignment with certain astronomical patterns. Perhaps most amazingly, it was all done without advanced observation technology.
Because astronomy was a major part of Mayan religion, and in turn, daily life, a series calendars was developed based on the stars to keep track of these important events and the rituals that coincided with them. In many ways the Mayan calendars measured time even more accurately than our modern ones. Still, it was the subtleties of the Mayan calendars that gave rise to the 2012 phenomena and the predictions that were inferred.
The Calendar, the Prediction, and the Apocalypse
Popular media likes to portray the Mayan apocalypse predictions like this: “The Mayan calendar, which normally starts over, suddenly ends on the day of the winter solstice (December 22nd, 2012), meaning that the world will most likely end in cataclysm.” Unfortunately, this misses the mark for several reasons.
There is no “Mayan calendar”, but instead four different calendars that were shared by many of the Mesoamerican civilizations and used for different purposes. The Tzolk’in calendar was 260-days long and was used to for several common things: for rituals performed every 260 days, for tracking the zenith of the sun for planting maize, and even for tracking pregnancies. The Round calendar was 18,890 days long and tracked a common Mayan lifespan of 52 years. The Haab’ was the familiar 365-day solar calendar. The last calendar, known as the Long Count, is the origin of the 2012 phenomena. This calendar was primarily used to track the history of the Maya – or more accurately, the history of the current world according to mythology of the Maya.
One of the basic units of time in the Long Count calendar is known as b’ak’tun and is approximately 394.3 years long. There are 13 b’ak’tuns in the calendar, meaning the Maya believed that the world began in 3,114 BC. However, the Maya also believe that there were three worlds before this, and that we currently live in the fourth. The end of a b’ak’tun signaled a time of great change on its own: at the end of the 8th b’ak’tun around 41 AD, the last of the Olmec cities in Mexico were abandoned forever. At the end of the 9th b’ak’tun around 435 AD, the influence of the great city of Teotihuacan (pictured above )suddenly and inexplicably increased, inspiring new dynasties and warfare. The end of the 10th b’ak’tun again saw a sudden and inexplicable abandonment of cities, as well as at the end of the 11th when Chichen Itza was abandoned. But the end of the last b’ak’tun, the 12th, may be the most fascinating of all; it was then in 1618 that emissaries of the last remnants of the Maya Empire approached the Spanish, saying that they were “ready to embrace the change that the turn of cycles would bring.” The implications of this will be explained below.
Finally, it appears that the 13th b’ak’tun will end on winter solstice, December 21st, 2012, and the Mayan Long Count calendar will end with it. Because of writings claiming that the previous three creations have failed and that those creations ended at the same time the 13th b’ak’tuns did, many speculate that the fourth creation (us) will likewise end. And voila! The 2012 conspiracy theories were born. But how literally should we interpret the implications of the end of the Mayan Long Count?
The End of the World?
It is tempting to connect the dots when it comes to the Maya’s apparent predictions of doom and destruction next week, but in fact the predictions are anything but. Here are some reasons why…
- The Long Count calendar is meant to start over, just like how our calendar goes from December 31st to January 1st. The fact that the Long Count “stops” is rather insignificant when compared to what supposedly happened the last time the calendar recycled.
- We have plenty of evidence of human activity all over the world dating back to well before the supposed end of the last world in 3,114 BC, and no indication that there was a sudden change in said activity around this time.
- We know a great deal about Mesoamerican languages, but that does not change the fact that some things could be lost in translation. Mayan writings saying that “creation came to an end” does not mean that everyone and everything was, or will be, destroyed – especially because the translation of these writings are disputed.
- Most importantly, the announcement by the Mayans claiming that they would embrace the changes that the end of the 12th b’ak’tun would bring is indicative of a larger, more spiritual worldview in Mayan culture. To put it another way, it was not the end of the 12th b’ak’tun that they were concerned about, but rather the beginning of the 13th; the Maya viewed these cyclical events as heralding a spiritual awakening of sorts, where old ways of life are abandoned in favor of a greater awareness of the world according to their religion and culture. Even saying that “creation ended” does not have to mean that it was destroyed; instead, it could be interpreted as meaning that creation as they knew it ended, and humans were spiritually and mentally reformed towards a new paradigm.
So should you grab all the food, water, and guns that you can and head for the hill? Probably not – at least based on Mayan “predictions”. I certainly hope that 2013 will be remembered in the future as a time when a renaissance of man’s thought and actions began, but we certainly will have no indication of that unless something major happens next weekend.
But who knows – there are so many ways that the world can end, we’ll just have to wait and see! Be sure to check back for our next installment where we will detail some of the most likely ways that the world will naturally end.