Dear Straight Dope:
In World Studies class at school we studied the ancient Mayans, specifically their calendars, and I found it quite frightening. Scientists say that these calendars and their predictions of various astronomical events were incredibly accurate. But then a movie we watched said the Mayans also predicted the end of the world, and that it'll be on December 23, 2012. Are they accurate about this as well?What is the deal with the Mayan calendar and the date December 21, 2012? Is the world going to really end on this date, or is it just a scare tactic? Caitlin, Columbia, Missouri; Joshua High
One of the perks of traveling by car is getting to see the odometer turn over. For whatever reason, people tend to be mildly fascinated by the sight of a string of nines giving way to a string of zeros. No one thinks it’s the end of the world, or even the end of the car; they just like to be there when it happens.
The same fascination extends to calendars, only amplified considerably and (at least for some) with a little bit of apocalyptic terror added in. Remember all the dire predictions that got tossed around during the run-up to 2000? Well, the whole the-Mayans-said-the-world-will-end-in-2012 thing is basically just Y2K fever, ancient Mesoamerican style.
The Mayans developed a sophisticated system of mathematics, as primitive civilizations go – they worked mainly in base 20, and they understood the concept of zero. Though they seem to have taken great interest in what they saw as the cyclical nature of the universe and displayed considerable skill in recording the motion of the moon, planets, and stars, their method of reckoning time was tied neither to lunar cycles nor to seasonal cycles; in fact, it’s synchronized only approximately with the solar year. They were apparently aware of the resulting discrepancy but, as far as we know, didn’t try to adjust for it, as most ancient Mediterranean civilizations did.
Their calendar system fell out of use after the Spanish invaded in the 1500s, and it’s only fairly recently, in the 1990s, that archaeologists have reconstructed it. Though there’s still some disagreement among the experts over the details, at this point we believe that the Mayans actually had three distinct calendars:
- The Tzolkin calendar, for religious or ceremonial use. It was divided into 20 periods of 13 days each, which obviously falls well shy of a solar year.
- The Haab calendar, for civil use. A year consisted of 18 periods of 20 days each plus 5 extra days of prayer at the end for a total of 365. Still a bit short (that’s why we’ve got leap years), but not too far off.
- Finally, the so-called Long Count calendar. No accuracy issue here: this one just counted the number of days from a start date. Mind you, the counting was done in a hybrid of base 20 and base 18, but once you got past that it was pretty simple.
Now, we don’t know for sure when the start date for the Long Count was. Most Mayan-ologists believe it was August 13, 3114 BC; the other serious contenders are August 11 of the same year and October 15, 3374 BC. (All dates have been converted to their Gregorian equivalents.)
Whichever one it is, why that date? No one knows. All three possibilities are at least 1,200 years earlier than the earliest evidence of Mayan civilization, and probably at least 3,000 years prior to the development of the Mayan calendrical system. What we do know (we think) is that the five-part format they used for counting the days thereafter wasn’t open-ended but maxed out at 1.872 million days. So, as we think we understand it, and assuming that the start date was one of those two days in August 3114 BC, then the Long Count will reach this maximum value on December 21 or 23, 2012.
And that’s where the apocalyptic talk comes from: the notion that the Long Count is designed to stop counting on a particular day and is thus an implicit prediction of the end of the world. But remember: the Mayans saw the universe as running in cycles – diurnal, lunar, seasonal, solar. It makes sense, then, that the Long Count, like many early calendars, would be cyclic too. It happens to have a very, very long cycle, but it’s apparently cyclic nonetheless.
(For another example of a cyclic calendar, think of the traditional Chinese system, familiar as a motif on old-school Chinese-restaurant place mats, in which each year is named for one of 12 animals: rat, ox, tiger, etc. When the last year in the sequence, the year of the pig, comes to an end, the whole thing doesn’t grind to a halt – it just starts over with another year of the rat.)
So when the Long Count calendar hits its limit on the 23rd (or 21st) of December four years from now, will that be it – the end of everything? There’s no reason to think so, or to think the Mayans thought so. Just picture a very large and complex odometer flipping over to a long line of zeros and continuing on from there.
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