Mayan Calendar

The ancient Mayas viewed time as cyclical, as evidenced by their round calendars. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve been paying attention to pop culture over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard some rumors about 2012 – specifically, about December 21, 2012. The 2012 buzz includes everything from a giant rogue planet hitting Earth to a fatal alignment with the galactic center. MPSC will be addressing the 2012 apocalypse claims in an upcoming Science 360 program, debuting in early February 2010. Meanwhile, we’ll be blogging about the claims, so check back often for new installments.

Before going into any details about what 2012 proponents claim will happen, we should first answer the question, “Why December 21, 2012?” The answer has to do with an ancient Mayan calendar.

The ancient Mayas used at least three different calendar systems, all of which operated simultaneously. There was a 260-day calendar (most likely based on the passage of Venus through the night sky), a 365-day civil calendar, and the “long count” calendar, which was used to record historical events. It is this last calendar that is being offered as “proof” of a December 2012 apocalypse.

The long count calendar marked the passage of time through lengthy cycles which cover about 5125 years each. The Mayas set the beginning date of the current cycle as August 11, 3114 B.C. (when they believe the world was created). That puts the end of this long count cycle on December 20, 2012. So what will happen on December 21? Will there even be a December 21?

2012 apocalypse promoters would like to you believe that the answer is no. But the Mayas themselves disagree. There are references in Mayan documents to dates both before this cycle began and after this cycle ends. There are also Mayas still living today, mostly in Guatemala, and they are not preparing for an apocalypse! If anything, the end of such a long cycle of time would probably have been a cause for celebration among the ancient Mayas.

So what will happen to the Mayan long count calendar on December 21, 2012? It will simply roll over to a new cycle, just as our desk calendars have to be replaced in January of each year.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our upcoming Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.


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