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With eye on Mayan calendar, 2012 doomsayers are stepping into high gear, as are the debunkers

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011, at 8:16 a.m.

If some interpretations of the Mayan calendar are correct, we’ll all be gone next year.

While every other doomsday prediction has (obviously) come and gone, some people think that the Maya knew something others didn’t and that the world will indeed come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.

Opportunists already are trying to cash in with 2012 survival kits, T-shirts reading “Doomsday 2012” and a “Complete Idiots Guide to 2012.”

December212012.com, devoted to the prediction, says, “Although this date may not necessarily mark the end of the world, it is widely believed that it may indeed mark the end of the world as we know it. … . The signs and indicators of dramatic and possibly devastating change seem to be all around us. Both ancient and modern-day observers alike have foretold the possibilities of this date, and the coming events of our solar system seem to support their theories.”

The site talks about the worldwide social and political unrest, new and untreatable pandemics, unusual and unpredictable weather patterns, devastating natural disasters in unlikely places and man-made devastation leading up to this date.

“We can expect to see a number of dramatic events guiding us to our ultimate destiny in 2012.”

But the site also says it is not suggesting that disaster is absolutely certain, but “conditions are right, and you should have concern for your own safety and for the safety of your family.”

Speculation about the world ending in 2012 has a long pop-culture history, including the movie “2012,” in which the character played by John Cusack tries to escape with his family from disasters that seem to signal the end of the world.

The notion that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world is complex, say many scholars.

First, the Maya, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America, were highly developed in mathematics and astronomy. The Mayan calendar involves a cycle of about 5,000 years, and on Dec. 21, 2012, it starts again at zero.

“Megacycles can be recorded with the ‘Long Count calendar,’ ” said Susan Milbrath, curator of Latin American art and archaeology at the Florida Museum of National History, University of Florida.

The calendar records mythological events in Mayan history, “many dating to before the current cycle of the calendar,” Milbrath said.

“As to future dates, there were few, but one of interest is the Tortuguero Monument 6 date that does fall on the end of the current baktun cycle on Dec. 21, 2012, when the Maya calendaric ‘odometer’ literally flips over.”

The baktun is one of the cycles or components of the Long Count calendar. It is a unit of 144,000 days.

Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy, anthropology and Native American studies at Colgate University, described the Long Count as an accumulation of various smaller time cycles that will revert to zero, and a new cycle of 1,872,000 days (5,125.37 years) will begin.

He said the Long Count is an accounting system “consisting of 13 cycles corresponding to the levels of Maya heaven that make up a creation period of 5,127.37 seasonal years. At the end of one creation cycle, the count rolls over to the first day of the new cycle.”

Milbrath and other Maya experts say the present notion of the world coming to an end developed around New Age literature, mostly dating after John Major Jenkins published a book in 1989 — and several afterward — suggesting the date ”coincided with a specific astronomical position wherein the sun was going to be seen centered in the galactic equator.

“In so doing, he suggested the Maya understood the concept of precession of the equinox and were aware of this future alignment when they developed the calendar somewhere between 100 B.C. and A.D. 200.”

Milbrath said numerous books “written by self-appointed shamans/scholars” exist about how this cosmic alignment will bring on a new age or the end of the world as it is now.

In a paper Milbrath wrote in 2007, she said the Maya purposely set the calendric odometer to roll over at the end of the baktun cycle on the winter solstice in 2012.

“The Maya must have set the baktun ‘end’ at the same time they back-calculated a starting point to the baktun around 3000 B.C.,” she said. “We can admire the Maya for their highly developed astronomy and mathematics, but we should not attribute to them impossible feats and thereby diminish their true accomplishments.”

Aveni wrote that the Maya were “obsessed with sophisticated timekeeping systems” and that “their astronomers had the capacity to predict celestial events, such as eclipses, accurately, all without telescopes or any technical devices.

“So it is no surprise that mystically minded people feel free to attribute to the ancient Maya the power to see far into the future.”

In a paper published this year, John Hoopes, a Maya expert in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, said there are more than a thousand books about the 2012 phenomenon. Some studies have resulted in discarding the 2012 end of the world hypothesis long ago, and some have not.

“Scholarship on the ancient Maya — academic or otherwise — has included many crackpots,” he wrote.

He said the 2012 mythology came of age in the late 1960s.

“If some assertions about 2012 sound as if they were imagined by people on drugs, it is because they were,” Hoopes said.

But he said the notion about the Mayan calendar prediction of the end of the world has deep historical roots.

Franciscan missionaries to the Americas brought stories of this and the Christian view of the end of the world, he said. Aveni said that one of the beliefs of the Pilgrims, which he called “a fringe religious cult,” was the Second Coming, and Christopher Columbus believed he would be establishing the site of the Second Coming.

Archaeologist Michael Coe has repeated the 2012 date with the concept of Armageddon in his book “The Maya,” in its eighth edition after first being printed in 1966, Hoopes said.

“Beginning in the 1960s, astrologers and what were basically psychedelic-using hippie-philosophers in California picked up on the concept of a Maya-predicted ‘apocalypse’ and helped make it a part of esoteric, New-Age lore.

“It came into general consciousness with the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, when fringe groups — including both counterculture ravers and New Agers — used the Internet to heavily promote alternative beliefs,” he said.

But the Mayan calendar is complicated, involving math, translating Maya hieroglyphs, “and cannot be easily explained in a sound bite,” Hoopes said.

It has created a buzz because of the Internet, cable TV and even the mainstream media, he said.

People tend to pay more attention to “unusual, weird and potentially threatening information than they do things that are banal and benign. Since 2012 is associated with ‘the end of the world,’ it’s become what author Malcolm Gladwell refers to as ‘sticky’ — that is, something that grabs attention and keeps it.” Hoopes said.

Aveni said the Maya are getting their turn on the stage because of intense interest in Mayan culture in the last 30 years.

“Visiting the Mayan ruins has become popular with American tourists, so many are becoming acquainted with this ancient culture,” he said. “They lived in the jungle, but were mathematicians and astronomers. Therefore, many people are inclined to conclude that they possessed some superior knowledge.

“But what the 2012ers are saying is that there will not be any more time,” Aveni added. “They are taking the idea of linear time, which is a Christian idea. For the Maya it is the end of one cycle and the beginning of another cycle. Maya time is renewed.

“The Dec.21, 2012, date is based on a lack of knowledge of Mayan history.”

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