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A Mayan Day of Reckoning?

As a specialist in the Mayan civilization, I’d like to set the record straight about the Long Count calendar. Contrary to what some New Agers think, there is no evidence that the Maya had a magical ability to foretell the future, so you may rest easy on the winter solstice in 2012. In fact, the Maya themselves didn’t believe this date would mark the end of time. What did the date signify to the Maya? The answer lies in their complex calendar system.

Calendars were deeply important to the Maya, both for recording the past and for looking toward the future. The calendar system governed Maya life, ritual, and religion. At ceremonial centers throughout the Maya area—southern Mexico and northern Central America—we find many calendrical notations marking warfare, birth dates, deaths, marriages, bloodletting ceremonies, coronations, and agricultural cycles.

The Maya used two calendars in conjunction: the Long Count, a fixed calendar that starts on a particular date in what we know as August 3114 B.C. and keeps going until 2012, and a cyclical calendar known as the Calendar Round, which repeats every fifty-two years. The Calendar Round actually comprised two different calendars: a sacred almanac consisting of 260 days and a solar calendar of 365 days, approximating the solar year. When combined, these two systems—sacred and solar—take 18,980 days, or fifty-two years, to complete a full cycle.

The Maya celebrated the completion of a cycle much as we celebrate the New Year. They marked other cycles as well, such as the Katun (7,200 days) and the Baktun (144,000 days). And here’s where December 21, 2012, comes in: it represents the end of the thirteenth Baktun since the start of the Long Count.

What happens then? Nothing. The Long Count resets at zero—for it, too, is actually cyclical—and a new count begins. The current cycle of the Long Count is neither the first nor the last. Its start date in 3114 B.C. represents the day the gods created the earth for the fourth time. And we know that the Maya conceived of dates well beyond the thirteenth Baktun: inscriptions at one site refer to a future anniversary of the ruler Pacal’s accession, which would fall on October 15, 4772—2,760 years after 2012.

So in case you had any doubt about the fate of the world on December 21, 2012, feel free to party like it’s 4771.

A lecturer in anthropology at Tufts, LAUREN SULLIVAN has conducted research in the Maya lowlands since 1987.

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