In honour of the new year, I thought we could turn to a subject of (one, extremely poor) film, and many conspiracy theories. Did the Mayans predict the end of the world, and is it going to happen?
What is the Mayan Calendar?
The Mayans were an extremely well developed society, who have dates going back to 3114BC (The starting date of the Mayan calendar; almost certainly a mythical founding event), and were subjugated by the Spanish in 1697.They had an extensive writing system, and were numerals that included the concept of zero (which is more than the Romans ever managed). Unsurprisingly, the Mayans had a system of recording dates: in other words a calendar. This was an altered version of the earlier calendars of the Olmecs. Example picture below:
Mayan numerals were deciphered in the late 19th/ early 20th century (It was a long process). The conversion of Mayan dates to Julian ones (ours) that I and most researchers use is the GMT, developed in the mid 20th century.
The calendar worked on several different cycles. There was a 260 day count (the Tzolkin), which combined with a roughly 365 day count (the Haab). These were made up of combinations of 20 and 13 day cycles. When combined, the Haab and Tzolkin make up a synchronised cycle called the Calendar Round, lasting 52 Haabs (c. 52 years) Since the calendar round repeats approximately once in a person's lifespan, there needed to be another calendar to represent long, or historical time. This is the famed Long Count, that allegedly predicts the end of the world. So how did it work?
Unlike the Calendar Round, the long count is non-repeating. It identifies days by their number after the mythical founding date: August 11, 3114 BC, in the Western calendar. It uses a base 20 numbering system, thus: 0.0.0.1.5 is equal to 25, and so on. The third digit in this sequence rolls over to 0 at 18, rather than 20. Long Count dates are usually found on buildings and inscriptions, identifying dates of buildings or significant events, such as the reign of a new monarch.
The second digit on a long count date is the K'atun, equal to 19.7 solar years. A Baktun is 20 K'atun cycles, or 394.6 years. The 13th Baktun is supposed to end on the 21st December 2012, which is why this date supposedly is the end of the world. However, reaching the end of a Baktun was usually considered an auspicious event, to be celebrated with feasting (as I vaguely remember the Millennium being).
What does all this mean for the 'prediction'?
Well, firstly, it's not really a prediction. There is a tradition of 'ages' in Mayan culture. The time from their founding date onwards is the Fourth World (the first three are unsuccessful test-runs). The previous world allegedly lasted for 13 Baktuns, and it is on this premise that this world will also end after 13 Baktuns. However, if that was a failed world, shouldn't our, (successful) world last much longer? Most of the scholarship on the subject from the 60s onward dismisses these 'end of the world' claims. The only people still making them are writers for the Daily Mail (what sells better than end-of-the-world-stories? Well, okay, celebrity nudity probably does), and websites like this.
If you'll care to have a look at this website (and be warned, you need a pretty strong stomach for bullshit), you'll see that it's twisted quite a lot of the information. I can't claim to be a physicist, but based on the validity of their claims about the Mayan world, I'm happy to accept that their 'scientific' information is equally flawed.
Is the world going to end?
No. Far more interesting is the question of why we think the world is going to end because of this calendar. The Mayans seem to have thought in cyclical time, and the fact that there were worlds before the current one, means they are likely to have been quite open to the possibility of another world after this one. Western Christian tradition, however, predicts the end of the world in the Bible, and for hundreds of years this was accepted without question: for western traditions it's not a question of if the world will end, but when.
For the Mayans, this was probably just a chance to celebrate living to see a particularly interesting but insignificant calendar event, like our Millennium.
Know anything about the dodgy science on that website? Let me know! And happy new year, all.