Ideas of the world ending have always been a deeply ingrained fear in our society. Last century alone there was an influenza pandemic, two world wars, the Cold War and a looming fear of a nuclear showdown, cults who followed comets as signs of impending doom, multiple "religious" figures claiming to know the date of the world's demise based on their own secret numerology. Real threats and bizarre conspiracies have long lent a hand to nurturing one of society's greatest fears.
So it doesn't come as much of a surprise that many would be feeling panic, even if only in the back of their minds, at the Mayan prediction of doom on Dec. 21, 2012.
Except that the Mayans didn't predict any doom, and to this day deny that is the correct interpretation of their final ancient calendar.
Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. Photo by Paul Huber
The last Mayan calendar stops on Dec. 21, 2012. This has led some to believe that they are calling for the world to end on that date. But scholars of ancient civilizations have been debunking that for years, explaining that Mayan calendars always ran in these cycles, called Baktuns. When they ended, the end of the world was not expected, but a new cycle would then begin.
Dec. 21 will mark the end of the 13th Baktun. The number 13 is considered a holy number to the Mayan culture, which has led to some saying that the end of this calendar is especially significant. It's considered the end of the Mayan creation period, but no evidence suggests that the end of this period equals any kind of destruction. Some scholars argue that there should be 20 Baktuns (which would make a Piktun), as most of the components of the Mayan Long Calendar are broken down into 20s. Texts separate from the particular calendar in question reference a calendar with a Piktun going as far forward as the year 4772 AD.
It's entirely likely that Mayans never intended for this calendar to be the last they created, but the arrival of conquistadors to their native lands, eliminating large percentages of their populations and oppressing the people through forced assimilation tactics, prevented them from completing the next calendar. What's more, is that the Mayans didn't follow leap years. So to their predictions, Dec. 21, 2012, has already long come and gone, as they did not create their calendar expecting an extra day to be added every four years.
What many people seem to be especially unaware of is that while the Mayan Empire is no longer in tact, the Mayan people are by no means gone. Mayans still live in Central America and Mexico today. Some have immigrated to other countries, including the United States. Many of the remaining Mayans have tried to clarify that the work of their ancestors is being taken entirely out of context, but their message still has not seemed to reach enough people.
Mayans continue to face extreme prejudice and systemic racism against them for being a native people in some countries. In places like Guatemala, however, the Mayans make up the majority of the population. Despite centuries of oppression, slavery and death from disease and war, there are an estimated 800,000 Mayans living in Mexico alone. They still practice the rituals of their ancestors, share the religion, the food, the culture. Current Mayan priests and political figures deny that the end of days is upon us.
So if Friday's date still frightens you, don't blame the Mayans. Blame the superstitions and the confusion of other people for spreading the wrong information about a culture they don't know anything about.
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