Mayan calendar doomsayers, debunkers welcome 2012

By Helen Gray

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

If some interpretations of the Mayan calendar are correct, we'll all be gone next year.

While every other doomsday prediction has (obviously) come and gone, some people think that the Maya knew something others didn't and that the world will indeed come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.

Opportunists already are trying to cash in with 2012 survival kits, T-shirts reading "Doomsday 2012" and a "Complete Idiots Guide to 2012."

A website, december212012.com, devoted to the prediction, says, "Although this date may not necessarily mark the end of the world, it is widely believed that it may indeed mark the end of the world as we know it. ... . The signs and indicators of dramatic and possibly devastating change seem to be all around us. Both ancient and modern-day observers alike have foretold the possibilities of this date, and the coming events of our solar system seem to support their theories."

The site talks about the worldwide social and political unrest, new and untreatable pandemics, unusual and unpredictable weather patterns, devastating natural disasters in unlikely places and man-made devastation leading up to this date.

"We can expect to see a number of dramatic events guiding us to our ultimate destiny in 2012."

But the site also says it is not suggesting that disaster is absolutely certain, but "conditions are right, and you should have concern for your own safety and for the safety of your family."

Speculation about the world ending in 2012 has a long pop-culture history, including the movie "2012," in which the character played by John Cusack tries to escape with his family from disasters that seem to signal the end of the world.

The notion that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world is complex, say many scholars.

First, the Maya, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America, were highly developed in mathematics and astronomy. The Mayan calendar involves a cycle of about 5,000 years, and on Dec. 21, 2012, it starts again at zero.

"Megacycles can be recorded with the 'Long Count calendar,'" said Susan Milbrath, curator of Latin American art and archaeology at the Florida Museum of National History, University of Florida.

The calendar records mythological events in Mayan history, "many dating to before the current cycle of the calendar," Milbrath said.

"As to future dates, there were few, but one of interest is the Tortuguero Monument 6 date that does fall on the end of the current baktun cycle on Dec. 21, 2012, when the Maya calendaric 'odometer' literally flips over."

The baktun is one of the cycles or components of the Long Count calendar. It is a unit of 144,000 days.

Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy, anthropology and Native American studies at Colgate University, described "the grand odometer of Maya timekeeping, known as the Long Count, as "an accumulation of various smaller time cycles that will revert to zero, and a new cycle of 1,872,000 days (5,125.37 years) will begin."

He said the Long Count is an accounting system "consisting of 13 cycles corresponding to the levels of Maya heaven that make up a creation period of 5,127.37 seasonal years. At the end of one creation cycle, the count rolls over to the first day of the new cycle."

Milbrath and other Maya experts say the present notion of the world coming to an end developed around New Age literature, mostly dating after John Major Jenkins published a book in 1989 — and several afterward — suggesting the date "coincided with a specific astronomical position wherein the sun was going to be seen centered in the galactic equator.

"In so doing, he suggested the Maya understood the concept of precession of the equinox and were aware of this future alignment when they developed the calendar somewhere between 100 B.C. and A.D. 200."

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