Take your pick.
We can all join what the New York Times assures us is a general panic sweeping across Russia (Russia? Really?).
Or we can enjoy the dry humor of Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who announced in a widely reproduced comedic video that the end of the world is coming this month.
What we can’t do, apparently, is ignore the hype that claims that the Maya who lived in city states in Mexico and Central America a little more than a thousand years ago predicted that the end of the world will come this month: December 21, to be precise.
I could try to follow in the footsteps of NASA, and reassure you:
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.
But I have a couple of objections to this well-intentioned FAQ, as a professor specializing in Central American archaeology.
First: December 21, 2012 is NOT the end of “the Mayan long-count period”.
It’s the end of the current baktun.
I recognize that probably I wasn’t too helpful there. So let’s try explaining what will happen in the calendar system used by the Maya from long before the Spanish arrived.
Start with that phrase I objected to on the NASA website: “Long Count” (usually capitalized by professionals). This refers to a continuous count of individual days, that started with a fixed point in what to us is the year 3114 BCE. The Long Count allows the precise placement of any date in a single never-ending time frame– the same goal achieved by the use of the Common Era calendar that let’s me say I am writing this on December 10, 2012.
Of course, the calendar used (but not invented) by the Maya doesn’t work the same way as the more familiar Common Era calendar. And that is where the story gets complicated. Bear with me!
Like us, the Maya used a mathematical system that employed place notation, and a symbol for zero, so that they could express very large numbers by using digits whose value was multiplied by the value of the place. Place notation and zero let the same digit stand for numbers that are different orders of magnitude.
For example, in the number 2012, the digit “2” appears twice. The 2 on the far right is in the “ones” position, and is equal to two years. The 2 on the far left is in the thousands place, so it equals 2 times one thousand, or two thousand. We make these translations pretty automatically once we have learned the system.
December 20, the day before the predicted “end of the world”, is equivalent to a Maya Long Count date we can write using Arabic numbers and place notation as 22.214.171.124.19.
First thing you probably notice is that the digits in the places (separated by the dots) run up to 19, not just to 9 as in our base-10 number system. That’s because the Maya used a base-20 math system: each place is a multiple of 20, and can take digits to represent the numbers zero to 19.
In the December 20 equivalent date, the 19 at the right is in the ones place: 19 days.
So the second place from the right is the 20s place. Here there’s a wrinkle: the creators of the calendar used by the Maya altered the strict math in order to make it work better as a way of approximating solar years. Instead of counting zero to 19, they counted zero to 17 in the second place (the 20s place).
Using the first two places (ones and twenties) the Maya could count a period of up to 359 days (17.19).
That makes the third place a close approximation of a solar year, 360 days. The December 20 date records 19 of this 360-day periods, and with the 359 days recorded in the first two places, that means it is one day before a group of 20 periods of 360 days will be completed.
The fourth place from the right is where 20 times 360 days would be recorded– about 100 days short of 20 solar years. On December 20, nineteen of these two-decade-long periods will have elapsed, so that date is actually one day from the completion of 20 periods of 20 groups of 360 days.
That 20 times 20 times 360 days adds up to 144,000 days, or a bit more than 394 solar years.
And that is what a baktun is: a period of 144,000 days, 394+ years.
On December 20 (and today, for that matter) the baktun place has a value of 12.
On December 21, adding one day to December 20, we go from 126.96.36.199.19 to 188.8.131.52.0.
The current baktun ends.
What happens next?
December 22 will be 184.108.40.206.1. December 23 will be 220.127.116.11.2. December 24 will be 18.104.22.168.3. And so on, until we get to 22.214.171.124.19. That will happen over 2500 years from now– in 4772 CE. And even then, the calendar won’t end.
Which brings me to my second quibble with NASA’s attempt to explain things. Instead of their wall calendar, think here of the odometer on your car.
When all the visible digits turn to zero, the mileage doesn’t go away. A one is added in a place to the left — even if it isn’t showing on your odometer. (And if you don’t understand that, I have a 1994 car to sell you — only 10,000 miles on the odometer. Give or take 100,000 or two.)
Similarly, the Maya could use additional places to the left. The first is equal to 20 times the baktun, or about 288,000 days. That’s close to 8000 years.
For most practical purposes, the ancient Maya saw no reason to write out higher places in the time count. But sometimes they did, especially to project back to mythological time. So we know their calendar wasn’t limited to the five places ending in the baktun.
A baktun provided a useful chunk of time to talk about: bigger than a lifetime or even historical memory, but still within recorded history. Before the Spanish arrived, people in Central America had already experienced four transitions in the baktun in their recorded history.
Their descendants have already witnessed another baktun end during the colonial period, and are weathering the exploitation of their spirituality this month.
So why the hype? I refer you to the many fine websites addressing that question, or the plethora of academic books on the subject, by people like archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni, historian Mathew Restall and art historian Amara Solari, or epigrapher Mark Van Stone.
The one real piece of ancient Maya material cited as evidence for the significance December 21, 2012 has long been a single sculpture: Tortugero Monument 6. It includes a record of the upcoming date– pretty amazing historically, considering that the monument is mainly concerned with “the ritual dedication of a tomb or shrine in the 7th century, specifically on the day 126.96.36.199.18 9 Etz’nab 6 K’ayab (January 11, 669)”. There is no special event recorded as happening this December 21: instead, the point of projecting a date over 1300 years in the future is a kind of political aggrandizement, comparing what was happening in 669 to epochal events far in the future.
Recently, a second example of a monument referring to this coming December 21 was located at La Corona, a site in Guatemala. It records a ruler from Calakmul, Guatemala, who visited La Corona in 696 following a major military defeat. As a report on the new discovery explains
the king was calling himself the “13 k’atun lord,” the carvings reveal. K’atuns are another unit of the Maya calendar, corresponding to 7,200 days or nearly 20 years. Jaguar Paw had presided over the ending of the 13th of these k’atuns in A.D. 692.
That’s where the 2012 calendar end date comes in. In an effort to tie himself and his reign to the future, the king linked his reign with another 13th cycle — the 13th bak’tun of Dec. 21, 2012.
Then there’s the whole awkwardness about the date at Palenque that actually goes all the way to 4772 CE, long after the end of the 13th baktun.
Maya rulers linked themselves to events happening so far in the future that they were beyond imagination– except for the people who controlled the technology of the calendar and its math.
Their message wasn’t that the world was ending: it was that their renown would last.
Like me, I think the patrons of these monuments wouldn’t be planning for the world to end this December. I think they would choose to follow Prince’s advice; just substitute baktun 13 for 1999, and 188.8.131.52.0 for the year 2000:
… when I woke up this mornin’, could’ve sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple, there were people runnin’ everywhere
Tryin’ to run from the destruction, you know I didn’t even care
Say say 13 zero zero zero zero party over, oops, out of time
So tonite I’m gonna party like it’s baktun 13…