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K. Kris Hirst

Maya 2012 FAQ

By December 17, 2012

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The Maya 2012 phenomenon, as it is called by many people around the world, is not going to go away any time soon--well, with any luck it might on Thursday Saturday (and of course it's over the weekend--how could the media have the world end on a Thursday?)--but I thought I'd take one last opportunity to talk about it from an archaeological standpoint.

Maya 2012: A Summary

First, in case you've missed the hoohah (what? are you living in a cave?), about 30 years ago, New Age writers noticed that the end of the current Maya Long Count Calendar was coming up soon.

Alternate description.
Mayan Long Count Inscription at Chichen Itza
Image Credit: Sylvanus Morley (1915)

The Maya Long Count Calendar is the linear calendar used by the Maya civilization of Mexico and central America, between about AD 200 and 900; and its 5200 year old cycle is due to end by the end of December 2012. For the past couple of decades, all kinds of end-of-the-world scenarios have been written about the end of the cycle, both good and bad (not to mention the John Cusack movie 2012). Some of the stories have warned that environmental and political disasters are in the cards; the return of the alien group who Erich Von Daniken wrote about in Chariots of the Gods has been mentioned; and a return to peace and tranquility has been devoutly wished for. Personally, I like the last one.

A Few Basic Facts about Maya 2012

  • The Maya Long Count calendar system was not invented by the classic Maya. It is at least as old as the second century BC and probably comes from the Mixe-Zoque people of the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, descendants of the Olmec civilization. The Maya adapted, enhanced and used the calendar more than anybody else in Mesoamerica.
  • The Long Count Calendar had a starting date of mid August or early September in 3114 BC. The calendar had enough date names on it to last 5,125 years, at which time, the users of the calendar would have to reuse the same names.
  • There already was a calendar used by the societies in Mesoamerica when the Long Count was developed, and it continued in use after the Maya stopped using the Long Count. Called the Mesoamerican Calendar, it combined an even older Sacred Round (260 days) and a Solar Round (365 days); its cycle lasted only 52 years.
  • All told, the Maya used the Long Count calendar for about 700 years.
  • Scholars are divided about the date on which the Maya Long Count Calendar began. It definitely was sometime in late summer 3114 BC, probably in mid-August, but perhaps as late as the first week in September.
  • The calendar cycle lasts 5,125 years, and will indeed end on December 21 or 23, 2012. Or, if you prefer to believe the astrologers at Palenque, the cycle just roll over to the next number. But, according to the Maya, the cycle just rolls over and starts again, no matter how you count it.
  • End-of-the-world stories about the end of the Long Count calendar do not appear in surviving Maya documents. It is true that end-of-the-world stories cropped up at the end of every 52-year cycle of the Mesoamerican Calendar, and many cultures like the Aztecs developed religious rites to stave off destruction (successfully, it must be noted). And there are some fascinating creation stories about the beginning creation of the Maya—both Mark Zender and Mark Van Stone talk about these creation stories in detail, linked below.

More about Mesoamerican Timekeeping

Traditional Numbering System of the Maya.
Traditional Numbering System of the Maya
Image Credit: Kris Hirst

Elsewhere: Scholarly Reactions to Maya 2012 Prophecies

All of these are written by specialists, and are free for the reading, and they make for great reading, with lots more detail.

Aveni, Anthony. 2009 Apocalypse Soon? What the Maya calendar really tells us about 2012 and the end of time. Archaeology magazine, free online.

Sitler RK. 2006. The 2012 Phenomenon New Age Appropriation of an Ancient Mayan Calendar. Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9(3):24-38.

Van Stone, Mark. It's not the end of the world: What the Ancient Maya tell us about 2012. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Zender, Mark. 2009. Much Ado about Nothing: 2012 and the Maya. Peabody Museum, Harvard University. MP3 of a lecture.

John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor at the Premiere of 2012 in San Sebastian, Spain
John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor at the Premiere of 2012 in San Sebastian, Spain. Photo by Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images

Comments

March 15, 2010 at 4:40 am
(1) Ishtar of Ishtar's Gate says:

Kris, my understanding through researching both archaeology and mythology is that the hundreds of flood myths around the world (of which the one in Genesis is by no means the oldest) represent an astronomical allegory for the end of the cycle. This view was strengthened in me after reading Hamlet’s Mill by Giorgio de Santillan and Hertha von Dechend, and we also see evidence of this in the Inca mythology, where the end of a cycle is represented by a flood in the Milky Way. Not to say, of course, that there weren’t catastrophic floods on Earth too, especially after ice ages. But my view is that floods that happened in history were used as allegorical motifs for the floods that happened in mythology, and in mythology, they represent the end of an astronomical cycle.

March 29, 2011 at 9:26 am
(2) crs says:

The end of the long count is dictated by the arithmetic of the counting system, and counting to base 20 is even more inflexible. It is the start date, day zero, that is important.

The start date is another matter. It seems that the early Maya, like the Sumerians, counted time from when “the flood swept over”. The last page of the Dresden codex is likely that. 31xx BCE is full of events.

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