Many conspiracy theorists, contradicting the claims of most scientists, point to 2012 as the year of the apocalypse. They often cite the Mayan calendar as evidence that doomsday will occur just over two years down the road.
According to History Channel lore the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012. Indeed the Long Count calendar, one of several used by the Maya, reaches the end of a 394-year cycle, known as a Baktun, at about that time. The Long Count calendar begins in 3114 BCE; hence, 2012 AD will mark the end of the 13th Baktun.
Popular consciousness has conflated "Mayan calendar" and "end of cycle, 2012," interpreted 'cycle' to mean 'existence', and spawned a rumor mill that the world is on the brink of destruction. Turns out, global demise is at hand, rife with meteors, tidal waves, "pole shifts", nuclear annihilation, etc. I, for one, was unaware until last semester. While returning mid-term exams, a student quipped that his grade didn't matter because everyone is going to die in three years anyway. Normally a quiet bunch, I found myself among a chorus of doomsdayers. The speculation seems unlikely to abate--next month the apocalyptic thriller "2012" will debut in theatres.
Unlike other doomsday prophecies, this one contains a germ of archeological and astronomical truth. Along a rural path in southern Mexico, a tablet known as Monument Six was discovered in the 1960s. Inscriptions on the ruin note the year 2012 and speak of something happening with Bolon Yokte, a Mayan god associated with war and creation. One section of Monument Six roughly translates as, "He will descend from the sky." A little eerie perhaps, but nothing too damning when put in context. David Stuart, an expert on Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas, states, "The Maya never said the world was going to end, never said anything bad was going to happen necessarily, they are just recording this future anniversary on Monument Six." The Maya also plausibly cited 2012 because they were astronomical prodigies. Upon the 2012 winter solstice the sun will line up with the center of our Milky Way, an occasion that only comes around every 25,800 years.
But the idea of the clock "running out" in 2012 is a Western invention. The Maya in fact celebrated the end of cycles, so the transition from the 13th Baktun to the 14th should be greeted, if anything, with revelry. And the Maya noted dates beyond 2012. Guillermo Bernal of Mexico's National Autonomous University points out inscriptions at various Mayan sites reference future dates as far away as 4772. Part of the misinterpretation emerges from the Mayan practice of pre-recording important dates.
Still, experts are getting rather frustrated with the hubbub surrounding the Mayan calendar. Apolinario Chile Pixtin, a Mayan elder, is annoyed: "I came back from England last year, and man, they had me fed up with this stuff." Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, calls the doomsday scenario "a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in." Academics and Maya elders instead believe Earth in 2012 will be hit by a "meteor shower of new age philosophy" and pop astronomy, no doubt teased by TV specials.
Ruminating on doomsday in three years may be engrossing, but it's a luxury many Maya don't have. A drought-stricken 2009 is proving quite harsh. According to one Yucatan archeologist, if you went to Maya Yucatan communities and said the world might end in 2012, "They wouldn't believe you. We have real concerns these days, like rain."
- Sean Goforth