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Dissecting the Mayan apocalypse
Did the ancient Mayans really predict that the world would end in 2012, as millions of people believe?
 
Indigenous Mayans during a ceremonial prayer to welcome the upcoming December 2012 end to the Mayan calendar: Many true-believers insist the world will end when the calendar does.
Indigenous Mayans during a ceremonial prayer to welcome the upcoming December 2012 end to the Mayan calendar: Many true-believers insist the world will end when the calendar does.
J. Emilio Flores/Corbis

Who were the Mayans?
The Mayan civilization dates back to 2000 B.C., and extended through what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and parts of Honduras. During the civilization's peak, from A.D. 300 to 900, the Mayans not only built towering temples and pyramids but also created elaborate astronomical maps and calendars and sophisticated mathematical systems. The civilization went into decline after 900, and its once-teeming cities were soon abandoned. Historians dispute why this happened; some say the Mayans were decimated by a 200-year drought, while others say they brought on their own downfall through over-farming. About 10 million descendants of the Mayans still live in Central America.

Did the Mayans predict the end of the world?
That belief is very much in dispute. The Mayan "long count" calendar progresses using a cycle of approximately 394 years known as a baktun; the calendar ends after the 13th baktun, which closes on Dec. 21 of this year. A stone tablet recovered in Mexico in the 1960s made an oblique reference to a god of war descending from the sky at the end of the 13th baktun. That artifact has fed widespread theories that the world will end that day, and archaeologists last November identified an ancient brick fragment inscribed with what could be another reference to the same portentous date. But anthropologists unanimously agree that the Mayans saw time as cyclical, not linear; Dec. 21, 2012, simply represents the end of one cycle and the start of a new one. "There is no concept of apocalypse in the Mayan culture," said Jesús Gomez, head of the Guatemalan confederation of Mayan priests.

So why does the belief persist?
Conspiracy theorists keep it alive — in many cases, for profit. Interest in the Mayan calendar dates back to the 1960s, when various New Age authors predicted that Dec. 21, 2012, would usher in a new era of cosmic peace and understanding. But other fringe historians chose to see this date as Armageddon, and soon began to publish books linking the 13th baktun with everything from Nostradamus to the lost city of Atlantis. In their book The Mayan Prophecies, published in 1996, Maurice Cotterell and Adrian Gilbert claimed to have found evidence that the Mayans had predicted that solar activity would reverse the earth's magnetic field in December 2012, destroying civilization and wiping out the human race. This idea spawned hundreds of books, and tens of thousands of websites, all devoted to advancing the idea that the world would end in 2012. With the disaster movie 2012, even Hollywood got in on the fad. As the date itself approaches, doomsayers will renew their efforts. NASA says it is contacted by about 10 people every day asking about the end of the world, with some asking if they should kill themselves.

How do the Mayans' descendants view the coming apocalypse?
As a welcome business opportunity. Mexico's tourism industry anticipates a doomsday bonanza, with 52 million visitors expected to visit the states of Chiapas, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Campeche this year — more than twice the usual number for the whole of Mexico. Tapachula, a town on the Mexican border with Guatemala, has set up one of several doomsday clocks. More than 500 Mayan-themed events are scheduled throughout the region, including a "Sacred Mayan Journey" along the Yucatán Peninsula's Riviera Maya. Travel agent Jonnie Channell said hotels were filling up quickly. "People are excited about it," she said.

Are others profiting from doomsday fears?
Opportunistic Internet retailers are selling 2012 survival kits, insurance policies, and reserved seating in "doomsday-proof" bunkers. Californian Robert Vicino is peddling spaces in his "private network of impervious, underground survival shelters" for $10,000 a head. "What if the prophecies are true?" he says on his website, which helpfully includes a countdown clock to the big day. "Which side of the door do you want to be on?" Retailers have also seen a mini boom in books, DVDs, and magazines explaining or debunking the myth. "It's an amazing cottage industry," said Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer. "There are hundreds of titles out there, and we expect dozens more."

Why so much interest?
Prophets and charlatans have been predicting the end of the world for centuries, largely because people find that prospect exciting. Apocalyptic ideas thrive especially when people feel marginalized or alienated from society, says cultural historian Paul S. Boyer. Believing the world will end creates a "framework of meaning," he says, that gives "our own personal lives some kind of significance." In the U.S., apocalyptic prophecies resonate with a public battered by recession and political strife, especially those raised as evangelical Christians. A Pew Center poll last year found that 41 percent of Americans believe the rapture will occur before 2050. America, in other words, is fertile soil for End Times entrepreneurs. "We invented this doomsday scenario," said archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor, "not the ancient Maya."

How the end would come
Those who believe the world will end this year have come up with various scenarios for global catastrophe: massive earthquakes and tsunamis, the eruption of a supervolcano, and the sudden reversal of the earth's poles. One of the more creative theories is that a rogue planet named Nibiru, or "Planet X," is hidden behind the sun and will emerge and collide with Earth later this year. Another theory points to a planet named Eris. NASA has dismissed Nibiru as an Internet hoax, and explained that while a dwarf planet named Eris does exist at the edge of the solar system, its distant orbit precludes any collision with Earth. Theories that a solar storm might affect Earth aren't as far-fetched — a severe solar storm occurred just last week — but NASA says solar flares do not pose an existential threat. "There is no credible evidence for any of the assertions made in support of unusual events taking place in December 2012," NASA says.

 

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