Thanks to the Maya Long Count calendar, the year 2012 has become something of a pop culture phenomenon. You’ve probably seen plenty of TV, movie, and internet references to the upcoming “end of the world” on December 21st or December 23rd (it depends). It’s a real bummer because the hope of “next year” is the only thing that has sustained me as a lifelong Seattle sports fan; once the Mariners win a World Series, then the world can end!
But, seriously, Maya scholars are not worried about 2012 being Earth’s last year. I’m neither a Maya scholar nor Maya descendant, so most of what I know about Maya calculations of time comes from popular sources like books, magazines, and documentaries. In other words, despite being an anthropologist, I make no claims of being a Maya expert.
Here’s what I’ve learned: The Ancient Maya constructed elaborate calendars to mark the passage of time – everything from the length of a human pregnancy to the age of the universe. Time was extremely important in Maya daily life and cosmology (the November/December issue of Archaeology Magazine – and final issue if the world does end this year – has a great summary of Maya calendars). The Long Count calendar counts the number of days since the mythological date of Maya creation, and includes 1,872,000-day cycles called bak’tuns. There are few known glyphs covering the 13th (current) bak’tun, but it is calculated to end on December 21st (or 23rd), 2012.
Obviously, most of us aren’t fearful about units of time coming to an end. For example, seasons, decades, and centuries all end and new ones begin, usually without mass hysteria (Y2K was one recent exception). It’s important to remember that the Long Count calendar marks the passage of time from a mythological date of creation. This date is ritually significant, but we now know that time didn’t actually begin on August 11, 3114 BC (Maya date), October 23, 4004 BC (Ussher date), or any other date based on religious speculation. Therefore, as Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Millennium panic in the year 2000, 2012 is an observance of a “precisely arbitrary countdown.” Most of the end-of-the-world stuff comes from outside of the Maya world. A recent AP article noted: “Such apocalyptic visions have been common for more than 1,000 years in Western, Christian thinking, and are not native to Maya thought.”
Modern Maya are excited about this year’s potential to spur interest in ancient Mesoamerica and archaeological tourism. Guatemala has a great Bak’tun Route ad campaign which focuses on 2012 as a beginning, not an end. Modern Guatemalan Maya communities still have “Daykeepers” who keep track of time: “’The world is going to die on December 23rd,’ says Christenson [Brigham Young University anthropologist], explaining that the Maya believe the world dies each day when the sun sets, or when crops are harvested. ‘The world is constantly dying,’ he says, ‘and the role of the Daykeeper is to make sure they get things going again.’”
So, despite the end of the 13th bak’tun, I still have time to learn more about ancient Mesoamerica and, hopefully, enough time to see my Mariners win a World Series. There’s always next year…
- Jay Fancher. Originally posted at anthropologynow.wordpress.com