The Maya and the apocalypse

The ancient Maya foretold the end of the world on 21 December 2012. Or did they? Rob Attar tackles seven questions on a once-mighty people and their predictions.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine    

A sixth-century AD Maya mask, made of jade, shells and pyrite. (AKG Images)

A global poll conducted by Ipsos in 2012 found that 10 per cent of people believed that the world was very shortly about to come to an end. The source of this global fear is a rather curious one: the ancient Maya. According to many experts the Maya’s Long Count calendar was going to reach the end of a cycle on 21 December 2012, at which point numerous nervous individuals feared an overwhelming apocalypse, while some more optimistic people hoped for a New Age-style global transformation.

The Maya ‘prophecy’ has embedded itself in popular culture. Websites speculated on humanity’s chances of surviving 2012, while Hollywood was also taken in by the excitement. The 2009 blockbuster 2012 envisaged the human race almost wiped out by cataclysmic events, as heralded by the Maya. “We were warned,” was the tagline of the film’s poster, and at one point during the action a character sagely noted: “The Mayans saw this coming thousands of years ago.” But is any of this actually true, and if not, why has this belief become so ingrained?

 

1) Who were the Maya?

The question should be who are the Maya because this is a culture that still exists to this day. Several million modern Maya inhabit parts of Mexico, and other Central American countries, as they have done for millennia.

There is evidence for the Maya civilisation in these regions as far back as the second millennium BC. By the third century AD they had become urbanised and entered what is known as the Classic Period, which lasted until AD 900, during which time the Maya were arguably the most advanced of all the pre-Columbian civilisations.

From then on the Maya entered a period of decline and many of their cities emptied of people. Following the European discovery of the New World, Maya lands were conquered by the Spanish, and their culture was gradually influenced by that of the Old World, notably the widespread adoption of Roman Catholicism.

Much of the current Maya 2012 obsession focuses on the Classic Maya, rather than the present-day inhabitants of the region.

 

2) What is the connection between the Maya and 2012?

The Maya had several calendar systems to deal with different time scales. They had yearly calendars based on agricultural cycles, but also what is known as the Long Count calendar, for which a full cycle lasted 5,126 of our years. Although the calendar was probably created just over 2,000 years ago, it was dated backwards to have begun in the fourth millennia BC.

By following Maya calculations, experts have therefore pinpointed the end of the Long Count cycle to around December 2012, with 21 December being the most popular choice.

An illustrated Maya vase from Guatemala, AD 600-800. Such items were valued as status symbols for the Maya. (Trustees of the British Museum)

 

3) Did the Maya predict that the world would end in 2012?

Mayanists are fairly unanimous in answering with a resounding ‘no’. In The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012, Professor David Stuart is unequivocal: “No authentic Maya text foretells the end of the world in 2012, or of any destructive event happening in connection with the turn of the thirteenth Bak’tun [a sub-period in the Long Count].”

Matthew Restall is a Maya specialist at Pennsylvania State University. He is firmly against the apocalyptic scenario. “We don’t know for sure what they believed would occur and that’s part of the point. They didn’t write down in much detail what they thought was going to happen, and the way Mayanists interpret that is that it wasn’t something that was of concern to them. It was simply a resetting of the clock. It’s a bit like our own millennial calendar. We
get to 1999 and the next year is 2000 and that cycle continues until the end of the following millennium and begins again.”

Norman Hammond, professor emeritus of archaeology at Boston University, believes past evidence counts against a doomsday in 2012. “When we reached the end of Bak’tuns, the Maya didn’t make a big fuss about it. When we rolled over from the seventh to the eighth Bak’tun in AD 41 there was no big deal and again when we rolled over from the eighth to the ninth in 435 there were a few monuments put up commemorating it – but not many – and they were simply noting the date. It’s not like the fuss that was made about the year 2000 here.”

There is in fact only one known Maya artefact that is widely agreed to make explicit reference to 2012 – the Tortuguero tablet, discovered in southern Mexico in the 1960s. This monument contains hieroglyphs that mention the end of the Long Count cycle but some of the text is unreadable, and from what is left no clear picture emerges of Maya beliefs about 2012. There is no doomsday prediction.


The El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Built roughly 1,000 years ago, it is probably the Maya’s best-known creation. (Alamy)

 

4) Did the Maya have apocalyptic visions?

According to Matthew Restall, the pre-Columbian Maya had little interest in the apocalypse. “You have to look very hard to see any kind of concern with the end of the world. There are certain creation mythologies but not a lot about the world ending.”

In more recent Maya writings, there are apocalyptic ideas present, but Restall suspects they have a rather different origin. “They start to feel very familiar to us, with stuff about the second coming and Jesus Christ returning. Where does all that come from? Obviously it comes from medieval Christian Europe.” It appears that these ideas were introduced to the New World by the Spanish settlers, influencing Maya beliefs in the years after Columbus.

 

5) Where has the Maya 2012 belief come from?

The doomsday visions do not originate with the Maya and seem instead to come from the Old World. Unlike for the pre-Columbian Maya, there is a long-standing strain of apocalyptic thought in western civilisation that has its roots at least as far back as the Bible with its notions of Messianic rebirth, and the terrifying scenes in the Book of Revelations.

Western history contains several previous examples of doomsday predictions. One of the best known incidents involves the American preacher William Miller who declared that the world was going to end in 1843 and attracted tens of thousands of followers to this belief. After that year passed without incident, Millerites opted for a date in 1844 but were once again disappointed.

In more recent times there were the year 2000 fears, where another calendrical event apparently heralded global devastation. The modern concerns about 2012 seem to stem from this tradition, rather than anything introduced by the Maya.

For these western prophets of the apocalypse, the ancient Maya have obvious appeal. That’s partly because they were a relatively advanced civilisation, who, with their sophisticated hieroglyph writing system and pyramid-style structures, bear superficial resemblance to the ancient Egyptians.

Furthermore, says Matthew Restall, an air of mystery hangs over the Maya. “There is this notion that the Maya civilisation collapsed and that they disappeared. Scholars have been saying for decades that they didn’t disappear and that the population declined dramatically for reasons that are not easy to explain. But still for hundreds of years there have been these incredible cities covered in jungle and it did look as if a civilisation had risen up, developed an incredible writing system, and then just vanished.”

 

6) Is the 2012 fixation overshadowing other aspects of Maya studies?

On the whole Maya experts seem to be welcoming the added focus on their area, even if it’s based on a misconception. Norman Hammond: “What it means is that even for the wrong reasons, people are actually becoming more interested in the Maya than they usually are. Several of my colleagues have written books about this and people are going to read those. Then they’ll decide that maybe there’s more to the Maya than just the end of a calendar period and perhaps investigate further. It’s a good way of getting out to a public that normally wouldn’t be interested and – judging by some of the sales – it’s a good way of making some money!”

Matthew Restall agrees. “There’s so little in reality in Maya civilisation about the apocalypse that within a few minutes when people turn to the topic, they are being told about all this other stuff. They are being exposed to everything that is fascinating about the Maya and all the accomplishments of their civilisation.”


Mayan hieroglyphs from the Palenque archaeological site in Mexico. (Bridgeman Art Library)

 

7) What were the Maya’s real achievements?

They might not have predicted the end of the world, but the ancient Maya civilisation continues to fascinate scholars and the public at large, for good reason. Some of the architecture is breathtaking and world famous, notably the pyramid at the city of Chichen Itza, which was recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The Maya also created, in Norman Hammond’s words, “one of the great art styles of the ancient world. Their vase painting and sculpture are, I think, fully comparable with those of classical Greece.”

Then there are the Mayan hieroglyphs, the “one true writing system in the New World”, according to Hammond. “It is capable of expressing subtleties of language pretty much as great as modern English. It’s not at all a stilted picture language.”

Despite the confusion it has led to, it’s also impossible to ignore the Maya calendar system, with all its complexities. The fact that the Maya were looking into both the past and the future in their calendars is truly remarkable. “They were playing with time as though they were numbers ratcheting up on a pinball machine,” says Hammond.

Rob Attar is editor of BBC History Magazine.

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