Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Did the Maya predict the end of the world in 2012 ?

The whole craze over the supposed Maya prophecy of the end of the world in 2012 is based on bogus, commercialized, fake claims. The D-day ("destruction day) is one year off: December 21, 2012. This will not be the end of the world, nor will it mark a new era of enlightenment. The ancient Maya had numerous very accurate calendars. All of them were cyclical in that they came to an end and started over at zero. December 21, 2012 is merely the re-start date of the "Long count calendar," a count of days that started back in 3114 BC (well, at some point in the first millennium AD, the Maya extrapolated the Long count back to a zero date thousands of years earlier).

The Maya Long count calendar is just like the odometer on a car. There are five digits, and it ticks one digit for every day. Here are some dates:  ----  July 2, 292 (a date from the Maya city of Tikal) ---- December 21, 2011 (today)  ----  December 20, 2012
0. 0. 0. 0. 0   ----   December 21, 2012
The 2012 text from Tortuguero

(This is a base-20 numbering system, with the middle digit only going up to 18 before repeating).

So, what did the Maya predict would happen on the zero date? There is exactly one (count 'em, one) ancient Maya hieroglpyhic text that talks about this, monument 6 at the site of Tortuguero (see photo at right). Apart from the fact that key parts of the monument are broken, the text is a bit enigmatic. One recent translation (from Gronemeyer & MacLeod 2010) reads:
  • It will be completed the thirteenth Baktun [i.e., the end of the cycle]
  • It is 4 Ajaw 3 Kankin [the day and month designations]
  • And it will happen a "seeing"
  • It is the display of [the god] Bolon-Yokte
  • In a great "investiture."
- Gronemeyer, Sven and Barbara MacLeod  (2010)  What Could Happen in 2012: A Re-Analysis of the 13-Bak'tun Prophecy on Tortuguero Monument 6. Wayeb Notes vol. 34. Wayeb: European Association of Mayanists.

Hmmmmm, this is not about the end of the world, or a new beginning. It is an enigmatic statement that some god (whom we know next to nothing about) will show up on that date.

So why does everyone go around talking about the end of the world? Try typing "2012 Maya prophecy" into the search window in There are more than 100 books about this topic. People are making money by inventing bogus claims about the 2012 Maya Long count event. It is a commercial feeding frenzy, involving wildly inaccurate and made-up claims by fake scholars. Read my lips:


The Maya were accomplished astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists. They devised a whole series of incredibly accurate calendars. They invented the concept of zero. They extended the Long count calendar more than a millennium into the future. But they die NOT predict the end of the world. To read about Maya calendars and culture, and some scientific details about the 2012 nonsense, read any of these books, all by recognized experts in the field:

Aveni, Anthony F.  (2009)  The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Restall, Matthew and Amara Solari  (2011)  2012 and the End of the World. Rowman and Littlefield, New York.

Stuart, David  (2011)  The Order of Days: The Maya world and the Truth About 2012. Random House, New York.

Van Stone, Mark  (2010)  2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. Tlacaelel Press (private publication, Imperial Valley, CA.

But please avoid the nonsense found in commercial books on Check out the authors on the internet. The authors of the books listed above are all recognizied experts, easy to tell from a number of websites.
Aztec astronomer observes the stars

But what about the Aztecs?

It turns out that the Aztecs DID predict the end of the world. Their priests observed the heavens, and their mythology predicted the destruction of the world. This will come at the end of a 52-year calendar cycle, but we don't know which cycle! At the end of each cycle, the Aztecs would put out all their fires and wait around to see if the sun would rise again for a new period of 52 years. New fires were then lit (it was called the "New Fire Ceremony"), and the world was saved for another 52 years. The last such ceremony before Cort├ęs arrived took place in 1507. To read more about this, check out the new 3rd edition of my book, The Aztecs, in which I've boosted the coverage of the New Fire Ceremony.

Lighting of the Aztec New Fire+
When I was an undergraduate, we extended the Aztec calendar forward (now you can do that easily on the internet; back then it was a lot of hand calculations). We discovered that there was a 52-year cycle completion in the middle of a semester! We had a blow-out, end-of-the-world party, which was fun, but the world did not end (although I think it may have felt that way the next morning). The next scheduled cycle completion will be in the year 2027.

As an Aztec specialist, this whole Maya 2012 nonsense really bugs me. The Maya always get all the publicity, and the Aztecs get very little. The Maya are always on the History Channel or in National Geographic Magazine. Maya, Maya, Maya! We Aztec specialists often get an inferiority complex with respect to the Maya.

The Aztecs actually DID predict the end of the world, but who gets all the credit for ancient prophecies for doom and destruction: the Maya, who didn't even make such prophecies.

This morning, I was interviewed on local TV about the Maya 2012 bit. I didn't get to say very much, but check out the video.


Anonymous said...

I do not believe the Long Count will reset on 13 Baktun (whether or not that date falls on December 21, 2012 is another matter since Gerardo Aldana has shown how problematic the GMT correlation is). The whole basis for this view is that there are "pre-era" dates that mention events before the current creation and these are given as Long Count dates, i.e. in another "cycle". However, as Gronemeyer and MacLeod show this may be a convention used by scribes lacking negative numbers (like our BC dates). Or it could be that the Long Count of five digits simply is a short-hand version of a much grander Long Count (suggested by David Stuart). In Stuart's model, based on Stela 1 at Coba, we have a grand cycle of over 70 Octillion years. In any case, there is no evidence from the Classic period of multiple creations (like the Aztec Suns). There are from the Postclassic period and later (Popol Vuh, etc), after centuries of contacts with central Mexico.

Anonymous said...

Btw, as a joke on a couple of internet forums and on my blog I have suggested that the 2012ers should focus on 2027 instead. Indeed, some people have taken this seriously and googled my name in combination with that year. So, if we have a 2027-phenomenon after 2012 fails, you know who to blame...

Michael E. Smith said...

@Johan- (1) I was hoping to avoid all the technical complexities of the Maya calendar, which quickly get beyond my competence.

(2) As for 2027, maybe we can figure out a way to make some big bucks on that. If worthless authors are making money on 2012, why can't we cash in for 2012 or for 2027? What if someone were to invent a fictitious Aztec expert, so that by 2027 this person might seem credible. Then publish a best-seller under that name. Perhaps a scholar at an obscure North Korean institute.

Jason Antrosio said...

Not related to current post, but wanted to let you know "Publishing Archaeology" and "Wide Urban World" included in an attempt at comprehensive anthropology blog list and through 31 December, can vote for 10 best anthropology blogs.

Anonymous said...

That has been my plan all along. I will come up with a new correlation constant that will make 13 Baktun end in 2027 and secure my future retirement.

Kit Quiton said...

Many people still believe that 2012 will be the end of the about you? What if it doesn't end this year? What will you be doing to succeed in 2012? Read Michael Drew's article here...

Theresa Danley said...

Hi Michael! I enjoy your post, as always, and agree with you about the Maya getting all the attention and the 2012 end, blah, blah, blah. That's partly what prompted me to write my book, EFFIGY. Yeah, it's another commercialization of Mesoamerica that you can find on Amazon, but I hoped to dispell a lot of the hoopla about 2012 with it, give the Toltec/Aztec cultures their due respect and offer an exciting story all at the same time. You may enjoy it and I hope you won't be too critical if you do read it!

Ryan Anderson said...

@Michael and Johan:

I think you guys are onto something with this whole 2027 thing.

By the way, I heard something about this Mesoamerican expert...

Michael E. Smith said...

I just found a great paper that reviews the history of new-age ideas about 2012 and the end of the world: "A critical history of 2012 mythology" by John Hoopes. It's posted on

Hoopes is less cynical than I am, attributing much of the hype to honest expression of ideas by new-age thinkers. I tend to attribute the furor, at least over the past year or two, to unscrupulous authors trying to make a buck. I'm sure both forces are at play, but how to measure them is a methodological problem.

Anastasia Tsaliki said...

Excellent informative & concise post!

Michael E. Smith said...

Here is a more plausible explanation for the importance of the key date in 2012:

Check it out! (Thanks to Cindy for the link)

Anonymous said...

I personally think all of the 2012 world-ending believers are much too gullible. They just take "scholars" words for anything without the actual data... because obviously there really is no data supporting the Maya prediction of the world ending.

Anonymous said...

I personally think all of the 2012 world-ending believers are much too gullible. They just take "scholars" words for anything without the actual data... because obviously there really is no data supporting the Maya prediction of the world ending.