The Mayans and the End of the World

Is the world going to end this week? Probably not, but just in case, here's a primer on Mayan history.

Dean Nicholas | Published in 18 Dec 2012

Presentation of captives to a Maya ruler, c. AD 785. Limestone with traces of paintIs the world going to end on Friday, December 21st? Probably not. Even NASA are telling us not to worry about it.

Still, that hasn't stopped many people, apparently convinced that, because the Mayan Long Count calendar "stops" on that day and the apocalypse is imminent, from travelling to Brazil or hiding out in the French Pyrenees in order to await the final reckoning. Why all the fuss? Mark Ronan, Honorary Professor of Mathematics at Univeristy College London, explains:

"The excitement is because the 'long count' comes to an end in December 2012, completing a 13th baktun, equivalent to 394.26 tropical years. But why is 13 important?

"The reason is that the Mayans once operated a 260-day cycle (still in use in parts of Central America), and for one long count to start on the same day as the previous one the number of days, and hence the number of baktuns, must be a multiple of 13. But why was 260 days important?

"That takes us to a very interesting fact, via a mire of scholarly nonsense from that doyen of Mayan studies, J. Eric Thompson. A clever man, who went to Winchester, he had the Wykehamist tendency to be a bit too clever for his boots, and scornful of others. He single-handedly held up the decipherment of Mayan glyphs by insisting there could be no phonetic elements, and refusing publication to anyone who suggested there was. It was a small field and he got away with it. He also refused to accept the 260-day explanation, trumpeting the human gestation period instead. That is closer to 280 days (40 weeks), and since the Mayans worked to base 20, why didn't they use 280? And why didn't other cultures use the gestation period?

"The explanation I like for the 260 days is based on careful geographical considerations. Anywhere between the Tropics the sun is overhead on two days each year, and at a very early Mayan centre there was a 260-day gap (and obviously a 105.25 day gap too) between these days. Moreover the Mayans used elaborate vertical posts to determine the days when the sun was directly overhead. These posts had collars at the top so there could be absolutely no shadow cast on the ground.

"At the very least we shall all be alive in the 14th baktun, and people may wonder what all the fuss was about".

The lure of millennialism is well documented, and perhaps these mis-interpretations could be avoided if people actually took a genuine interest in the history of Mesoamerican cultures, instead of tacking toward cheap interpretations and the lure of Hollywood spin cycles. Fortunately, during our 60-year existence History Today has published a number of articles on the Mayans, which we present here. Best get reading, though: if we're wrong, you've only got a few days to get through them all.

Secret World of the Maya

The earliest explorers to uncover the ancient Maya civilisation in Central America could not believe that it owed its creation to the indigenous population, whom they saw as incapable savages. Nigel Richardson explains how this view changed.

Diego de Landa in Mexico

In the sixteenth century a Spanish bishop of Yucatán was active in preserving and also in destroying the records of Maya civilization.

If Columbus Had Not Called

What would have happened if the native Americans had been left to their own devices? Brian Fagan probes the rise and fall of Aztec and Mayan society and proffers some intriguing observations.