Misreading Mayans: or, Why the World Is Not Ending This Year

Well, we have officially entered 2012, which only means one thing: the talk of the world ending in 2012 based on Mayan calendars and predictions will reach a feverish pitch, which is fine, only there’s one problem:

The Mayans didn’t predict the end of the world this year.

First, while people refer to “the” Mayans predicting this, “the” Mayans were actually many peoples who might have shared similarities in culture and broad belief systems, but they also had very important regional and ethnic differences across space and time. The culture and language of the Mayans in Palenque in 100 BC would have looked radically different to Mayans in the northwestern part of the Yucatan peninsula in the 1400s. There are no fewer than four major branches of the Mayan language family, with numerous subdivisions; additionally, these fragmentations apply to cultural beliefs and ethnic identities as well, so speaking of “Mayans” as a uniform group is about as useful as speaking about “American Indians” as some homogeneous identity. These divisions matter because they are also reflected in the calendars; not all Mayans across space and time referred to the same calendar or count of years, so to refer to “the” Mayan calendar is at best oversimplifying things and at worst, just plain ignorant.

Indeed, Mayan culture generally had two calendars: one, a 365-day calendar that measured the agricultural cycle; and one, a 260-day religious calendar that traced the sacred and spiritual life of Mayan peoples. Every 52 years, these two calendars overlapped, and when this occurred, Mayans viewed it as a cosmic moment that brought an end to a major period, but not in a linear sense; rather, Mayan cultures and peoples conceptualized space and time cyclically. Thus, when a period ended, it was not a final end of everything, but a period in which the old ended and a new era began. They would symbolize this ending/beginning in what we might today consider extreme ways: they would destroy their old homes, dishes, even plants at the end of a cycle, so that everything could start anew. But the “starting anew” is the key component of this worldview; endings lacked a finality that the Christian, linear understandings of time (in which there is an absolute beginning and an absolute end, and nothing more) had. In most Mayan conceptualizations of the world and universe, life was cyclical, made up of destruction and rebirth.

Which leads us into this idea of the “end” of the world.  The Mayans wouldn’t have believed in it simply because, in their conceptualization of the universe, ends weren’t permanent. Additionally, there is no evidence that the Mayans predicted the end of the world. Scholars who are experts on Mayan cultures and peoples point out that there is nothing to support the idea that the calendars were predictive (rather than descriptive). Additionally, the date from which the Mayan calendar began was completely arbitrary, meaning the ending date (which crackpots allege is this year, 2012) is also purely arbitrary. So where did this idea come from? Its origins rest primarily among Europeans whose Christianized worldview saw time as linear, and thus there was only one beginning and one end. Throughout the centuries, there have been any number of millenarian movements whose beliefs hinged on apocalyptic visions of the end times, and Spanish and European misinterpretations of both the Mayan calendars and the Mayan worldviews provided useful fuel to flame the apoctalypticism that had its roots in Christian worldviews. But these predictions and views never accurately reflected what the Mayans ever originally said or believed.

So did the Mayans say the world would end this year? No – not ever. Not only was the date not clear, nor their calendar predictive, but the very way in which they conceptualized the world would never suggest it was “ending,” only that one phase had come to a violent close and a new phase in the world was beginning. Barring human-imposed disasters like nuclear apocalypse, the world will not end this year.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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