December 18, 2012

Apocalypse now? Mayan calendar explained

Posted: December 18, 2012
It's the end of the world as we know it ... or is it?
(stock.xchng photo)

For those of you who’ve somehow managed to remain blissfully ignorant up to this point, please be advised: the sky is falling! Or at least that’s what many who buy into the Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy would have you believe.

Not everyone is convinced, though. ASU professor Michael E. Smith, in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, specializes in archaeology and is keen to point out that there is only one ancient Maya hieroglyphic text that refers to the date Dec. 21, 2012 and that it, in fact, makes no mention of total annihilation.

As for the specification of that date, Smith explains that it is simply the re-start date of the Maya Long Count calendar, which began counting days back in 3114 BC. The calendar uses a base-20 numbering system that tracks days the way a car’s odometer ticks off miles, restarting at zero once it’s maxed out.

Juana C. Batz, a K’iche’ Maya from Guatemala, says that Dec. 21, 2012 is just the end of a cycle and that, “according to our sacred calendar ... it is also a cycle that begins.” It's the same way that Dec. 31 marks the end of a cycle we know as a calendar year, which, of course, then restarts on Jan. 1.

So why is everyone in such a tizzy about it? Smith chalks it up to good old capitalism.

“People are making money by inventing bogus claims about the 2012 Maya Long Count event,” he says. “It is a commercial feeding frenzy, involving wildly inaccurate and made-up claims by fake scholars.”

There’s even an entire documentary show on the National Geographic Channel dedicated to a special faction of individuals who are wholly convinced that the end is nigh. Called "Doomsday Preppers," the show follows these “survivalists” as they stock up on canned goods and toilet paper, and run test drills where they don hazmat suits and retreat to their secret bunkers where, presumably, they intend to wait out the end of times and, once the dust has settled, emerge victorious. In the midst of all this hysteria, let’s pause for just a moment and reflect: Does anybody remember Y2K? How about Harold Camping’s Rapture prediction in 2011? Right. Just asking…

Coincidentally, several schools within the university are scheduled to graduate on the now infamous date. Biology major David Fleming says he really hopes the world does not end. “I’m gonna be furious – all this work for nothing.”

At least the hype gives us an excuse (however flimsy) to crack open a bottle of bubbly and crank up R.E.M. on our stereos. Because, after all, if we’re going out, we may as well go out in style.

Some may truly believe this is the end of the world as we know it – I, for one, feel fine.

Read more about the Mayan calendar.

Emma Greguska, emma.greguska@asu.edu
ASU media relations