Friday, 21 December 2012

It's the End of the World as We Know It...

Apocalypses are funny things. Every time we get past one, there’s always another one just around the corner. They happen for all sorts of different reasons, from asteroid impacts to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to the arrival of the Anti-Christ. There was even the Prophet Hen of Leeds in 1806, who laid eggs with the phrase, “Christ is coming,” on each of them (it was later found to be a hoax).

And as every apocalypse passes and every new one around the corner is announced, there are always throngs of people ready and waiting to believe. Personally, I’ve never really understood how each doomsday prediction manages to gather the followers that it does, but I’ve learnt to accept it. I content myself with the fact that, while many may believe, far, far more people don’t believe. With that, I can relax in the knowledge that humanity as a whole really isn’t that gullible.

But there’s something a little different about this “Mayan Apocalypse” that’s supposed to happen sometime today (I’ve seen no sign of it yet, but there are still many hours in the day left, not to mention other time zones that are behind my own). It’s not that this one is any more likely than any of the others. It’s not. Nor is it that there are more people who believe it. While I don’t have access to accurate statistics, I suspect the number of believers this time is comparable to the number of believers of other well-known apocalypse predictions. No, it’s the fact that people believe there was ever a prediction in the first place.

I have not personally met anybody who believes the world will end today, 21 December 2012, but I have met numerous people who believe that the Maya predicted the end of the world for this day. I try to correct them each time. Some take me at my word; others actually scoff. The fact remains, however, that the Maya did not predict the end of the world for this day. Nor did they predict it for tomorrow or any other day.

So why do so many people think they did? The first book to suggest an apocalyptic prediction was The Maya (1966) by Michael D. Coe, a well-respected Maya scholar. While the idea was debated by scholars, as more archaeological evidence came to light and people understood the Mayan calendar better, the idea was eventually dismissed. Unfortunately, the idea had spread to the non-scientific community. It was taken out of context, misunderstood, and fuelled by the power of our global communication network and the willingness of people to believe anything they read without ever checking the source. So my little idea that humanity is not so gullible is revealed to be illusory after all. The misunderstanding stems from the way the Mayan Long Count Calendar works. I’ll get into more detail shortly on how that calendar really works, but in essence a cycle is coming to an end. Someone somewhere got the idea at some point that the end of a cycle meant the end of the world. But all it really means is the beginning of a new cycle, very similar to how we recently had one millennium end and another begin.

Calendars can be complicated things, although most people probably don’t realize just how complicated. The principal unit that we measure time in is days (well, from the perspective of scientific calculations and formulae, it’s really seconds, but I’m referring to calendar measurements here). Then we have weeks and months, leading up to the next principal unit, the year. But here’s where the complications start. The day is the length of time it takes the Earth to make one full rotation on its axis. A month is roughly the length of time for the moon to make one full revolution around the Earth. Finally, a year is the length of time for the Earth to revolve around the sun.

It seems straight-forward on the surface, but unfortunately, nature doesn’t count in exact round amounts for our benefit. A calendar year is 365 days long. However, the actual amount of time the Earth takes to go around the sun is closer to 365 and a quarter days. So our calendar starts to fall a little out of sync each year. That’s why we have leap years every four years—to bring the calendar back in sync with the extra day. But even that doesn’t solve the problem, since the solar year is not exactly 365.25 days. A more accurate number is 365.24219878 (and since the speed of the Earth’s rotation isn’t absolutely constant, even that’s not perfect). This means that, eventually, leap years put our calendar out of sync in the other direction.

Here’s where we get into aspects of our calendar that most people aren’t familiar with. In order to take into account the addition of too many leap years, every one hundred years, we do not have a leap year. For example, the year 1900, while divisible by four, was not a leap year. So there was a leap year in 1896 and then the next one wasn’t for eight years until 1904. But that still doesn’t make the calendar work out perfectly because this then offsets it back in the previous direction. As such, every four hundred years, we do have a leap year after all. The year 2000, even though it is divisible by 100 (meaning no leap years), is also divisible by 400, and therefore was a leap year.

As you can see, calendars are complicated things. We understand the basics of our own because we use it every day of our lives. However, the Maya used a very different calendar, and from that perspective, it’s somewhat understandable that people new to it might misconstrue what some aspects of it mean. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty large leap from a change in cycle to the end of the world. So for the sake of reducing confusion, here’s how the Mayan calendar actually works.

The Maya actually had three calendars, each for a different purpose. The Tzolk’in was the sacred calendar, used for scheduling religious ceremonies. It combined 20 day names with 13 numbers for a total of 260 days, after which it began again. The second calendar was the Haab’, the secular calendar. It was based on the solar year and so was 365 days long. It did not, however, take into account the extra quarter day and so seasons tended to shift their time of the year a little each year. The Haab’ contained eighteen months of twenty days each, followed by a five-day period at the end of the year called the Wayeb’.

The third calendar was the Long Count Calendar, and the one that people refer (unknowingly) to when they refer to the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse”. The Maya used this calendar, as the name implies, to count extended periods of time, and those periods counted quite far into their future. When we transliterate the calendar to our own symbols, we write it out as a set of five numbers separated by periods, for example, (the Maya actually used hieroglyphs). The first position (the right-most) was called the k’in and represented one day. Twenty k’ins made up one uinal, which is the second position from the right. So the calendar would count up in days from to and eventually to before switching over to There were then 18 uinals in a tun, twenty tuns in a k’atun, and 20 k’atuns in a b’ak’tun. Each tun is therefore 360 days in length (approximately one year), each k’atun 7200 days (approximately 20 years), and each b’ak’tun 144,000 days (around 400 years).

The day we call the 20th of December, 2012 would be represented on the Mayan Long Count Calendar as (although there is some small disagreement amongst scholars as to how the Mayan calendar lines up with our own, so this could be off by a couple days). All the positions before the b’ak’tun are at their highest count (note that there are only 18 uinals in a tun, so the second position only counts to 17), meaning that on 21 December (today), the calendar moves to the next b’ak’tun at That’s all. Just as the changeover of a millennium does not herald the end of the world in our calendar (although that certainly didn’t stop some people thinking the year 2000 would be the last), the change of a b’ak’tun did not herald the end of the world to the Maya. Oh, they probably would have seen it as a momentous moment, just as we saw 2000 as a momentous moment. But it was never thought of as the end of the world.

Indeed, the Maya even had units for larger counts of time. Twenty b’ak’tun make a piktun, 20 piktun a kalabtun, 20 kalabtun a k’inchiltun, and 20 k’inchiltun an alautun. Eventually, the Mayan calendar will reach, and on 13 October, 4772, it will add a sixth position and roll over into If nothing else, the existence of these higher (and obviously rarely used) units, giving the Maya the ability to track time millions of years into the future, is the ultimate proof that the Maya never believed the end of the world was scheduled for 21 December, 2012.

In short, the Mayan Apocalypse is a modern-day myth that has spread so insidiously that even people who don’t believe the end of the world is coming still believe that the Maya predicted it. Not surprisingly, many have started taking advantage of this in both mild ways (like Mayan Apocalypse vacations) and extreme (books like this one that—based on the cover description at any rate; I haven’t read it—provide completely false information about Mayan beliefs all to exploit the gullible). It’s become so widespread a belief that the modern Maya people are protesting the misrepresentation of their culture by media and governments (and I think they’re absolutely right to do so). So the next time you hear someone talking about the Mayan Apocalypse (either today or any future time when people talk about how it didn’t come to pass), point out to them that there’s no such thing. Inform them that the end of the world predicted for 21 December, 2012 was the invention of somebody who wasn’t a Maya. Essentially, let them know that this apocalypse is even more nonsensical than any of the ones that have come before and possibly even those yet to come.

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