First there was Y2K. Now we have Y12. By now almost everyone you know has probably heard that in just a few months, on Dec. 21, 2012, the ancient Maya calendar will end, and with it, the world as we know it will either perish or transform into a new reality. Roland Emmerich's film 2012 showed us what is in store (as did the director's 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, in a way). And over the past 20 years, a growing literature on the topic has been reaching a crescendo, with books like Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 by John Major Jenkins (1998) and The Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012 (2008). As Anthony Aveni noted in The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012, the proposals for what might happen on Y12, as the date is referred to in pop culture, include:
• The great Maya lord will make everything die
• The world as we know it will come to an end
• Damaging sunspots will reach their peak
• The Cosmic Shaman of Galactic culture will offer clues for healing the planet, which will be destroyed if we don't act now
• The solar system will enter an energetically hostile part of the galaxy
• Mass extinction will take place
• The Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt
• The Earth's magnetic poles will reverse
• We will get sucked into a black hole
With such dire predictions, what can one do? Read the following before you run up your credit cards, buy a 2012 survival kit, or plan that trip you always wanted to magical Bali (this is Santa Fe, right?). The ancient Maya calendar is not ending on Dec. 21! Neither did the Maya leave us any secret messages about what would happen on that date. The descendants of the ancient Maya still live in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, not to mention southern California. More than two million people in the Yucatán Peninsula alone speak one of the 20-plus Maya languages. But only those who have taken classes in the ancient calendar — which is comparable to taking a class in ancient Greek — have any awareness of its arcane mathematics.
The long and winding count
The earliest Maya cities were built before the Common Era, at places like El Mirador and Nakbe in present-day Guatemala, which were large population centers by 300 BCE. The earliest-known examples of Maya hieroglyphic writing were also made at this time. The amazing Maya murals that archaeologists discovered 10 years ago at San Bartolo, Guatemala, include a few unreadable early Maya hieroglyphic texts. The ancient Maya used several calendars, among them counts of 260 and 365 days, which were probably both invented by earlier peoples, such as the Zapotec of Oaxaca, who were using the 260-day calendar by 600 BCE. We will not concern ourselves with these calendars, since they are only peripherally connected to the Y12 phenomenon. Instead, a separate count of days that archaeologists call the Long Count is where we find a calendar period that will end near the end of 2012.
The Long Count is a continuous tally of days from a starting point, similar to the Julian day count used today by astronomers, which sets Day 0 at Jan. 1, 4713 BCE. The ancient Maya used a day that in our calendar correlates to Aug. 11, 3114 BCE. There were no Mayas in Mexico and Central America in 3114 BCE, so this beginning date was retrospective. Single days, counted from sunrise to sunset, or perhaps from some other solar event, such as noon or midnight, are the fundamental unit of the Long Count. The word for the one-day unit in several of the Maya languages was and is k'in, which means sun, light, and day. The initial consonant is a glottalized "k, " which we do not have in English. Ancient Maya math was based on 20, rather than on 10, in the decimal system we use. However, the ancient Maya did use place notation, as in the number 10,000. Whereas in a decimal system, each place represents increasing factors of 10, in Maya math each place would represent factors of 20. For example, the Maya date for Dec. 21, 2012, can be written as 18.104.22.168.0, which means that on this date, 13 baktuns, or periods of 400 "years" of 360 days (or 144,000 days), have passed since Aug. 11, 3114 BCE. These were conventional counting years rather than any attempt to reflect the solar year of just over 365 days. The second position from the left tallies periods of 20 "years" of 360 days (7,200 days), which the Maya called k'atuns. The third position tracks "months" of 20 days, and the last tracks groups of single days. The last position can hold up to 19 days (whereas in our decimal system, the last position can hold up to 9). One more day and you have one "month" of 20 days and no single days, which can be written 1.0 in a vigesimal, or 20-based place-notational system. The Long Count month position can hold up to 17. One more month, and you have one year, zero months, and zero days, or 1.0.0. The bundles of years can number 19. Add one more year and you have one group of 20 years, zero extra single years, zero months, and zero days, or 22.214.171.124. The last cycle to the left counts periods of 400 years, or 20 times 20. We know that the cycle was set at 13 on Aug. 11, 3114 BCE, and that it will again be at 13 at the end of this year.
The problem for the Y12 phenomenon is that, although it seems clear that the Maya thought the cycle of 13 periods of 400 years reset in 3114 BC, it is not at all clear that they thought it would again reset to zero in 2012. Thirteen is not a factor of 20. If the system were strictly vigesimal, the count of 400 years should actually go up to 19, not 13. Unfortunately, the Maya never told us whether, after the end of the 13th period of 400 years, the 14th through the 19th would follow, or whether the count would instead reset to zero.
Hose off your calculator and reboot it
Although we do know that the period of 5,125.25 years (5,200 years of 360 days, or 5,125.25 years of 365.25 days) embraced by those 13 periods of 400 years was significant to the ancient Maya, as discussed below, time and the calendar definitely did not begin in 3114 BCE and will not end in 2012. Stela 1, a Maya text carved on a stone monument from Cobá, Mexico, begins with the Aug. 11, 3114 BCE date, which is usually written with just the five lowest periods of days, months, years, and groups of 20 and 400 years. But on Stela 1, we learn that 126.96.36.199.0 is actually an abbreviation of a much longer date, with 19 additional, higher periods. The 3114 BC date is thus expressed on Stela 1: 188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124.0.0.0.0. Each of these higher time periods is a factor of 20 larger. After the baktun, or the fifth number from the right here, we find counts of 8,000 years of 360 days (2,880,000 days), 160,000 years of 360 days (57,600,000 days), 3,200,000 years of 360 days (1,152,000,000 days), 64,000,000 years of 360 days (23,040,000,000 days), and so on. If we expanded this date to learn when the 24th period to the left began, it takes us 28 octillion years before the present, and so far beyond the currently understood date for the Big Bang creation of our universe, 14 billion years ago, as to be incomprehensible, even if you have a computer. So whatever the ancient Maya thought happened in 3114 BC, it was not the beginning of their calendar or of time.
Likewise, several Maya texts record dates far beyond 2012. At Palenque, a long hieroglyphic text in the Temple of the Inscriptions relates the acts of the great King Pakal, who died in 683 CE (he is buried in the building). The last phrases of the inscription state that on a day that correlates to a day in October 4772 in our calendar, it will be the eightieth anniversary of the date in the 260- and 365-day calendars that Pakal became king of Palenque in 615, which was 5 Lamat 1 Mol (126.96.36.199.8). Such dates that include positions in both the 260- and 365-day calendars can repeat only once every 18,980 days, so 80 times 18,980 gets us to Oct. 23, 4772. Earlier in the same text, the same event, Pakal's accession as king of the site, is linked to accession of a deity 1,246,826 years in the past. No humans are listed as acting at any of these dates in what David Stuart calls deep time in his book The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012. Instead, these remote dates served as anchors for events in the lives of living humans, the kings and lords who wished to legitimize their power and memorialize themselves.
Several Maya texts discuss what they thought happened in 3114 BCE, and it would seem to have been a recreation of the world. Many ancient Mesoamerican peoples believed that the world had been created and destroyed several times before the present. The Maya epic, the Popol Vuh, lists four such creations. And the Aztecs of central Mexico believed that they lived in the Quinto Sol, or fifth creation. These texts (preserved on Stela C from Quirigua, on a vase in a private collection, and in at least two other works) relate that on that date in 3114 BCE, the gods were set in order, three altars were established, and it all happened at the edge of the sky. (For more details, see the books listed on the left, especially those by Stuart and Mark Van Stone.)
The ancient Maya were even more silent on what might happen on Y12. Only two inscriptions among tens of thousands record the period ending that will happen in December 2012. One is on a fragmentary wall panel from the destroyed site of Tortuguero, near Palenque, and the other was just discovered this spring at the site of La Corona, Guatemala. In both cases, the texts link events in the lives of living rulers to those in deep time: at Tortuguero, the dedication in 669 CE of the building in which Monument 6 was probably originally mounted; and at La Corona, the visit in 696 CE of an important king from Calakmul. The completion of the 13th baktun is the message. There is no further statement of what the Maya thought might transpire on Dec. 21, 2012. No black holes, green men, or galactic equators, nothing but the symmetry of time. Stuart notes that the pattern of linking events in the lives of living rulers to period endings that were predictable by the Long Count may have been legitimization strategies, aimed to set human acts in deep time. The late seventh and eight centuries were a time of increasing warfare and the eventual collapse of Maya civilization, so linking an event to a safely predictable event in the distant future, Stuart argues, was a powerful statement of stability in a manifestly unpredictable time.
Although the people who built the great cities of Tikal, Palenque, Copán, and Chichén Itzá are long gone, their descendants have not disappeared and can be found throughout southern Mexico and parts of Central America. But the only Maya who still use any of the ancient calendars live in the western highlands of Guatemala, and they use the 260-day calendar for prognostication. As the anthropologist Barbara Tedlock notes in Time and the Highland Maya (1982), Quiché and Cackchiquel Maya daykeepers and shamans use the 260-day calendar to counsel clients who come to them with questions as varied as whether it is a good day or week to be married, take animals to market, or build a new house. They also request the aid of the daykeepers to find lost objects and especially for healing cases of soul sickness, such as curses or fright. In the last pages of The End of Time, Aveni writes that he asked a couple of native Maya daykeepers if they had any thoughts on the impending Y12 event. Although they do not use the Long Count calendar that generated the Dec. 21, 2012, period ending, they responded that humans would have to work together to solve the problems that beset our planet. If by the end of the year, the Y12 phenomenon makes at least some of us more mindful of the damage we are causing our planet and our fellow creatures, then perhaps the ancient Maya actually did send us an unplanned gift across the abyss of time. ◀