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On the end of the world

The best reason not to believe it is that the Mayans never actually predicted it in the first place.

It’s half past one in New Zealand on 21 December, the supposed Mayan-predicted “end of the world”, and people here will have noticed that everything seems to be normal. But such gleeful I-told-you-sos are marred by two startling misconceptions.

The first is that the “prediction” says nothing about the world ending at the stroke of midnight. It merely says it will happen on 21 December. This could be at any time during the day, and there are still twenty-two-and-a-half hours to go.  Until then, the celebrations are a little premature.

If you want to be especially pedantic, according to this page the end of the Mayan calendar long cycle is at 11:11 UTC.  That’s 00:11 on 22 December in New Zealand. So there’s a while to go yet.

The second misconception is more substantial and deserves emphasis, so I’m going to put it in bold:

The Mayans did not actually think the world would end on 21 December 2012.

What everyone thinks is an end-of-the-world “prediction” is actually just the end of the current b’ak’tun, a unit of time in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar roughly equal to 394 solar years.

The Long Count calendar, like the Julian calendar (the one we used today), starts at an arbitrary point.  For us, it’s when Jesus Christ was born (though most scholars now think we were off by a few years).  For the Mayans, it’s their mythical creation date of 11 August, 3114 BC. Counting from then, 12 b’ak’tuns takes us to yesterday, 20 December 2012, the last day of the 12th b’ak’tun.

So what happens at the end of a b’ak’tun?  Well… nothing. It just goes onto the next b’ak’tun. In our case, the 13th one starts today.

It’s worth noting that there are units in the Long Count calendar longer than a b’ak’tun. Twenty b’ak’tuns make a piktun. That’s roughly 7885 years. We haven’t even got to the second piktun yet—there’s still eight b’ak’tuns to go. And then after that, there’s more: 20 piktuns make a kalabtun, then 20 of those a k’inchiltun, then an alautun which spans a whopping 63,081,429 years. Clearly, the Mayans were thinking pretty far ahead.

So it’s pretty unexciting. According to the CNN, the Mayans are pretty unexcited too, at least not about an apocalypse. Rather, it’s exciting to see the “start of a new era”, a bit like how we got to see the year 2000 kick off the third millennium.

Historical records, too, seem to indicate that the Mayans thought the world would continue beyond today. According to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, “dozens or hundreds of glyphs have been found referring to dates after 2012” (emphasis in original). This probably wouldn’t have been the case if they thought the world wouldn’t be around by then.

So to say “world’s still here, we’re fine” isn’t just premature. It’s a misrepresentation of what the Mayans believe. The hype over the Mayan “prediction” is really for nothing: the Mayans never said and don’t believe it themselves, so I’m at a loss for why so many are happy to point out they were “wrong”.

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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