Ancient Mayan astronomers predicted that December 21, 2012 will be the end of the current incarnation of the world and the beginning of the next one.
Wondering how they came up with that date?
First we have to understand how the Mayans measured time. The Mayans used two different calendars to mark of the days of their lives – a 365-day solar calendar which they called the Haab, and a 260-day lunar calendar called the Tzolk’in. When they had to pin a date on something, they would give both the Haab and Tzolk’in date, as together they formed a unique combination that would not repeat for another 52 years. So Mayan party invitations looked like this:
Chief Jaguar Claw's Birthday Bash! 3:00pm-9:00pm Haab 146, Tzolk'in 25 BYOM! (Bring Your Own Maize)
But what if they wanted to talk about a date in longer-than-52-year timeframes? For that they used the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, which involved an awful lot of math. Here is how it denoted time: 20 days made a uinal, 18 uinals made a tun, 20 tuns made a k’atun, and 20 k’atuns made up a b’ak’tun. Got it?
Each B’ak’tun would last about 394 years, and the Mayans would notate time like software versions, with the B’ak’tun number coming first and all the others following. So, 188.8.131.52.19 would mean – the twelfth b’ak’tun, the nineteenth k’atun, and nineteenth tun, the seventeenth…you get the idea.
That particular date – 184.108.40.206.19 – had a special relevance to the Mayans. According to the Popul Vuh (a book compiling ancient Mayan legends and prog/kraut-rock guitar tabs), we are in the fourth incarnation of the world. The gods tried to make three previous versions, but those worlds failed.
And the previous world failed on 220.127.116.11.19.
Why is that notable for us?
Well, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar started the counting from 5,125 years ago. Which, if you do the math (note: I’m definitely NOT going to do the math, but I trust that all the people who did are right about this) means that 18.104.22.168.19 will hit around December 21st of 2012.
Sometime this December 21st, the calendar will roll over into 22.214.171.124.0 – the start of the 14th b’ak’tun, and the start of the fourth world.
Is December 21 2012 Really the End?
First off, some dispute that 126.96.36.199.0 is the correct roll-over date for the worlds. Mayanologist Lloyd Anderson believes that 188.8.131.52.0 is the correct roll-over (so we’re safe for a few hundred years). Sir Eric J. Thompson was convinced that the b’ak’tuns roll over at 20 (as most of the other segments in the Long Count Calendar do). Since there aren’t any ancient Mayan priests running around to ask, it’s hard to judge which theory is correct.
Then there are scholars (including Susan Milbrath, Sandra Noble and E. “wacchu talkin bout” Wyllys Andrews) who dispute the very idea that the End of the Fourth World is a big fiery Apocalyptic deal. They point out that the Mayan hieroglyphs that announce the Long Count Calendar end date are pretty matter-of-fact about it, and that there’s nothing in Mayan history or any surviving artwork suggesting they thought it was a particularly nasty occurrence. In fact, since by their accounting, the Long Count Calendar cycles came and went regularly, and time was seen as cyclical in nature, December 21 2012 mighta been seen as “just another Friday” to the Mayans.
OK, maybe. But…here’s a counterpoint to that view. Why the hell would the ancient Mayans have been exercised by this idea? Maybe it was more that they didn’t think the 2012 end-of-the-world was a big deal FOR PEOPLE LIVING IN THE 800s. They saw it as less an MP (my problem) than as a GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG
GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGP (great-great-great-etc. grandkids problem).
It’s not as if there isn’t abundant contemporary evidence that this is how humans think.
So…what exactly will happen this December 21st? Fuck if I know. Ask me on the 22nd.