Friday, February 17, 2012

Mesoamerican Armageddon

A friend of mine asked me to look into the real story behind the Mayan calendar and the end of the world in 2012.  Hollywood has certainly made a big deal of the whole thing, but how much is reality, and how much is good movie fodder?  The answer is pretty complex, but I will do my best to present a summary that isn’t too convoluted.

First, we have to take a look at the origins of the Mayans.  Around 2000 B.C.E., the people who would become the Olmecs emerged in southern Mexico and northern Central America.  They began to develop a distinct culture that emphasized imperfect but powerful gods that could create or destroy.  As the Olmec culture solidified, they became concerned with pleasing their gods so that crops would grow and life would remain pleasant.  Agriculture was very important to the Olmecs, as it would continue to be for the Mayans and Aztecs that would come afterwards. 

The Olmecs devised a 360 day calendar system for planting crops.  It was based on the movements of the sun, and was similar to our Gregorian calendar. There were 18 months of 20 days each. The last five days were nameless days, and were considered bad luck days.  They also devised a 260 day calendar for rituals and ceremonies.  This calendar had 13 months of 20 days each.  There are a few theories as to why they had this second calendar.  Perhaps it was because the average pregnancy lasts about 260 days?  Or maybe it was because it takes about 260 days for a complete growing cycle of a crop of corn?  Most likely, it is because the numbers 13 and 20 were sacred numbers to the Olmecs, and would remain sacred to the Mayans and Aztecs.  Every 52 years, the two calendars would end on the same day, and a 52 year cycle would start over. The Olmecs were also very interested in astronomy and astrology, and they passed this interest on to their Mayan and Aztec descendants as well. 


When the Olmec reign ended around 200 B.C.E., the Mayan and Aztec peoples began to rise in power.  They adopted many of the customs of the Olmecs, including their calendars.  The Mayans improved and expanded the calendar system into one of the most sophisticated in the world.  .  The Mayans were very concerned with the passage of time, and the keeping of incredibly precise historical and governmental records.  They developed a system of writing which used glyphs, which were recorded on stone and in books made of a rough paper.  They also developed a number system which was a base 20 system, and had a glyph for zero.

The Mayans wanted such precision in their record keeping that they felt 52 year cycles weren’t enough.  They called the 260 day calendar the Tzol’kein, and the 360 day calendar the Haab.  First they added a 534 day calendar which was specifically for religious purposes.  It tracked the times for rituals, ceremonies, and festivals.  It was used mainly by priests.  The 52 year cycle was the Calendar Round.  To these, they added the Long Count calendar, which encompassed 5125.36 years.  This would allow them to record events accurately for posterity. 

The Mayan calendar systems were highly complex.  Interlocking wheels were made with glyphs for each of the 13 months and the 20 days.  The wheel was turned daily to match a day name with the month.  If you want more information about exactly how the calendar worked, check out  There are some great graphics and a wonderful explanation of the way the calendar works. 

Now back to the end of the world.  The current Long Count calendar ends on December 21, 2012.  The Great Cycle of 5123.36 years will come to an end that day.  It is also the day of the Winter Solstice, and even cooler, it will be the first time in about 26,000 years that the sun will align with the center of the Milky Way.  But does this mean the apocalypse?  Well, the 7 million or so Mayans still living today say no.  Many still use the Mayan calendar system, and still celebrate the old rituals and festivals.  They say it will actually be a big celebration day, kind of like New Years.  Top that with the fact that no predictions from the ancient Mayans have been found to say that the world will end on December 21, and I think we can safely say that the doomsayers and Hollywood have taken things way out of context. 

For more information, you can look at the website above, or you can read in the books below.  There is so much information on this topic, and much of it is very complex.  I tried to summarize it in a very simple way.  I am also including a few doomsday websites just for fun, and a link to IMDB for a couple of movies.  I hope you can breathe a little easier now.

Mexico in World History by William H. Beezley

The Aztec and Mayan Worlds by Fiona MacDonald

Ancient Maya:Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of the Maya’s Past by Nathaniel Harris   
(This one goes to show how dangerous a tiny bit of knowledge and a lot of misinformation can be when you stir them up together)    (for the movie 2012)      (for the movie Apocolypto)


  1. Very cool analysis...thanks, Angel! Sounds like the synchronizing of all these calendars is a cause for celebration, not hysteria. I did see Apocalypto, by the way - fascinating for its depiction of the Mayan culture but ultra-violent and disturbing overall.

  2. I'm glad you liked it Emily. I read that Apocalypto was controversial with Mesoamericans because they portrayed the Mayans more like the Aztecs.