A frequently heard retort to the idea that the Mayans predicted our imminent demise suggests that if they could not predict the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores and the end of their civilization, we have nothing to worry about. This is just one of many myths about the Mayans, their time keeping, and abilities to predict the future.
Contrary to what some may say, the Mayans were not wiped out by the Conquistadores or by the subsequent and brutal process of colonization of the Americas by Europeans. Today there are an estimated seven million Mayan people living in southern Mexico and northern Central America. They live in sizable communities and maintain distinctive traditions, even if these have been influenced by the colonization of their area by people with radically different beliefs and values.
The ancient Mayans lived in much of the same area as their descendants do today, going back at least 4,000 years. Many people travel from all over the World to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico to see the archaeological sites of, for example, Tikal, Palenque, Chitchen Itza and Tulum. Tulum is a particular favorite for travelers experiencing Mexico for the first time. What makes these places so spectacular is the unique style of architecture, the most visible and dramatic feature being the stepped pyramid. These pyramids were built for worshipping gods and deities, the activities of which took place in the temples and shrines at the top.
Besides their easily recognizable ritual art and architecture, the Mayans were the only civilization in the Americas who had a fully developed written language prior to the arrival of European colonists. Ancient Mayans had also developed quite sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems. Although the Mayans did not invent the calendar, theirs was the most sophisticated. But did their calendar predict that the World will end on 21 December 2012?
The Mayan Calendar and 21.12.2012
Of all the calendrical systems in use in ancient Mesoamerica, those of the Mayans and the Aztecs (who were located north of the Mayans, in what is present-day central Mexico) are the best documented and probably also the best understood by archaeologists and archaeo-astronomers. So, as far as understanding aspects of prehistory go, archaeologists have a very good idea of what the Mayan calendar is all about.
In certain Mayan creation accounts the gods are said to have created four different, successive worlds. Each of the first three worlds failed, the Mayans believed they were living in a more successful fourth world. As the third World ended after 13 bak'tuns, each one a period of just under 400 years totaling roughly 5,125 years, some people have suggested that the ancient Mayans believed that the fourth world would also come to an end after 5,125 years. And the specific date for that? Yes, you have guessed it, is 21 December 2012. It just so happens that this date is also winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.
Specific mentions of the end of the 13 bak'tuns of the fourth world are extremely rare. And the most frequently discussed example by Mayanists is not that well preserved, and so the interpretation is not that conclusive. Certainly what is beyond doubt in the reading of the glyphs on this stone tablet is that the Mayans did not foresee some cataclysmic end to their world on 21 December. An idea supported my more recent discoveries.
Earlier this year archaeologists were working in Xultún - thought to be the last of the unexcavated larger Mayan cities. One of the more exciting finds here was a mural on an ancient house. This unique mural has a very well preserved but not an unusual scene of a king accompanied by his retinue. More importantly, also included on the mural are numerous calculations that relate to the passing of time, with dates some seven thousand years into the future. Dates then that extend beyond the end of the 13th bak'tun at 5,125 years.
End of the World or End of an Era?
For the Mayans, then, 21 December 2012 is simply the end of one bak'tun, the 13th one. A bak'tun is simple a measure of time passed that equates to about 400 solar years. Whether or not the end of the 13th bak'tun then marks the end of the fourth world, as it did for the third world, is unclear. There is no suggestion that each of the four worlds is only 13 bak'tuns long. The recently rediscovered mural at Xultún suggests the fourth world was not coming to an end at the end of the 13th bak'tun. Far from being the end of the World, 21 December 2012 is the end of an era, and the following day is the start of another, and one that Mayans today will be celebrating.
(Main photo via www.fabuloussavers.com - second photo via www.global-adventure.com/)
After many years teaching archaeology to university students, Thomas Dowson gave up the Ivory Tower and started to explore his passion for prehistory on the road. He founded Archaeology Travel, a comprehensive online guide to finding and sharing some of the more exciting archaeological sites and museums around the world. He also regularly blogs about his own adventures back into the past.