Over the past year, a steady trickle of books, articles, and film proposals has crossed my desk about world-changing events that the ancient Maya are said to have predicted for the date of December 21st, 2012. The latest is a press release for a book claiming that physicists searching for the Higgs boson (the so-called "God Particle") at the giant particle accelerator at CERN, near Geneva, are at risk of triggering "seismic events that could release cataclysms prophesied by the Mayan Calendar 2,000 years ago." Other popular theories involve giant solar flares wreaking havoc on satellite communications, or a "galactic alignment" of the plane of the Milky Way that could bring spiritual enlightenment rather than doomsday. In anticipation of either dire or uplifting events, tourists are flocking to Maya sites in Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize in record numbers.

If you're inclined to suspect that Y12 might be as big a fizzle as Y2K, you may still enjoy a sober look at the evidence for what the ancient Maya actually believed about the cosmos and the calendar. There's no better introduction to that subject than "The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012," a popular book by Anthony Aveni, a pioneering investigator of Maya astronomy. Shot through with characteristic humor and a gift for sharp explanation, Aveni's book presents a clear picture of Maya creation myths and the motivations of their skywatchers. He outlines how the Maya followed three separate calendar cycles that mesh together like gears in a bicycle wheel; the biggest "gear," or cycle, was the "Long Count," which tracked the number of days that had elapsed since a creation date in 3114 BC, far back in their mythological past. If you project the Long Count forward in time, then a sub-cycle known as the baktun, equivalent to roughly 395 solar years, is due to turn over and reset itself, like the numbers in an odometer, on December 21st.

Easter procession
An Easter procession in the highland town of Nebaj, Guatemala. Today's Maya observe ceremonies that are a blend of Christian and pre-Hispanic influences.

So what did the Maya believe about this cycling of their calendar? Since the late 1970s, scholars have made astonishing progress in deciphering Maya writing--the intricate hieroglyphs that they painted on vases or carved into stone monuments between AD 250-900. We now know that many of the inscriptions relate the ancestry of their rulers back to the start of the Long Count or other auspicious events in the deep past. Others concern the political present and give details of accessions, alliances, military conquests, and the overthrow of rival rulers. To see a vivid slice of this evidence, Mark van Stone's "2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya" presents a highly accessible pictorial guide to Maya art and hieroglyphs and how they relate to the 2012 question.

The bottom line is that amid all the rich hieroglyphic records kept by Maya scribes, there's total silence about what they actually thought about the future turnover of the baktun. Only two inscriptions even mention the turn of the 13th baktun, which corresponds to December 21st, 2012 in our calendar. One of them was discovered this summer at the Maya site of La Corona in Guatemala by David Stuart, a leading scholar of Maya writing, who says he was stunned when he spotted a text mentioning the 2012 turn of the cycle. Like so many other inscriptions, Stuart says, its context is the politics and history of the 7th century AD, specifically the divine status of one of La Corona's rulers. "The point was to associate the divine king's time on the throne to time on a cosmic scale," he says. To understand more about how the Maya recorded and justified the affairs of their rulers, see Stuart's popular book titled "The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya." In his final chapter, Stuart concludes, "No Maya text, ancient, colonial, or modern, ever predicted the end of time or the end of the world."

Today, in the highland villages of Guatemala, traditional Maya calendar cycles are still observed by "Daykeepers," or shamans, although the cycles are no longer geared to the fortunes of powerful kings and queens. The most important of these cycles is a ritual calendar of 260 days, perhaps related to the length of human pregnancy, known as the tzolk'in. The same cycle was widely observed by the Maya 1,000 years ago. One of the Daykeepers' major preoccupations is to perform ceremonies correctly so that the tzolk'in keeps running smoothly, thus ensuring the fertility and health of the community. Allen J. Christenson, an anthropologist who has worked for decades in Guatemala, says that rural Maya villagers had little or no awareness of any kind of apocalypse in December 2012 until they heard about it from outside media sources. But they do believe the world is going to die. As Christenson explained recently in Archaeology magazine, the Maya believe that the world dies each day when the sun sets or crops are harvested. "The world is constantly dying," he says, "and the role of the Daykeeper is to make sure they get things going again." In this perspective, the idea of a single cataclysmic "doomsday" is simply a projection of our own culture.

Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is the focus of traditional creation myths among the Maya. In the lakeside community of Santiago Atitlán, anthropologist Allen J. Christenson apprenticed himself to a Daykeeper to gain insights into Maya beliefs and ritual practices.

While no serious evidence supports the idea that either the ancient Maya or traditional shamans believed in a world-shattering event, the modern mythology of a 2012 apocalypse has taken on a life of its own. Across Latin America, many of today's roughly seven million Maya people are planning events and festivals to celebrate their identity around the upcoming date. Throughout Latin America, the 21st will be an occasion to celebrate the rich heritage of Maya civilization, which science has played a vital part in recovering.

For further reading, see:

Anthony F. Aveni, 2009. "The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012." University of Colorado Press.

Mark Van Stone, 2010. "2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya." Tlacaelel Press.

David Stuart, 2011. "The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya." Harmony.

Zach Zorich, 2012. "The Maya Sense of Time," in Archaeology magazine, Volume 65 Number 6, November/December.

David Stuart talks briefly about the 2012 apocalypse in a recent episode of WAMC Northeast Public Radio's "The Academic Minute."

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