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)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chocolate-The Mayan Ambrosia

My sister and I were at a baby shower recently, and one of the games involved melted candy bars in diapers.  The object was to guess the candy bar from appearance and aroma.  Some were difficult, but right away, we identified a Hershey Bar.  My sister pointed out that it has a smell you can’t mistake for anything else.  This little event made me realize that chocolate is a full experience from taste, to texture, from aroma, to memory. 

            As the chocolate softens, the comforting, unmistakable taste
              transports you into a delightful world of memories.”
                                                                                Herve Bizeul

Did you know that 52% of Americans say chocolate is their favorite dessert flavor?  Or that in 2001 Americans consumed 3 billion pounds of chocolate?  Cacao is the third largest agricultural export product in the world, coming in right behind coffee and sugar.
But how did we discover this magical elixir?  Where did chocolate come from?  And how did it come to be such an integral part of our world?  Let’s go back in time about 2000 years.

It all began in Central America.  The Mayans and Aztecs cultivated cacao trees, which they called cacahuaquchtl.  As a matter of fact, it was the only tree they bothered to name.  They believed it was sent by the gods as a gift.  It seems that the Mayans first ate cacao.  They made a thin, bitter drink, and also mixed it with corn meal for a kind of porridge.  The Aztecs so valued cacao that they used the beans as money.  It took about 50 cacao beans to pay for a donkey.  In their book, The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe contend that chocolate is possible twice as old, and was originally used by the Olmecs, and there is emerging evidence to suggest they are right. Christopher Columbus actually took cacao beans to Spain, but Isabella and Ferdinand failed to recognize their potential.  It wasn’t until after Montezuma introduced cacao to Cortez that the Spanish realized what they had. 

In the 1520s, the Spanish nobility began to mix sugar with the bitter cacao drink of the Americas.  Cacao trees were planted in Spain, and the secret formula was well guarded.  Cacao was sold in limited amounts to other countries, until in the 1630s, the secret got out.  Still, cacao was very expensive, and only a select few could enjoy it.  In 1730, the prices of cacao and sugar dropped.  The Industrial Revolution allowed for smoother and faster processing.  More people were soon able to afford chocolate treats.  Plantations were sprouting up throughout the European colonies, and chocolate made it’s way around the world. 

In 1764, the first American chocolate factory opened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Baker’s Chocolate is still making chocolate in Massachusetts today.  We can thank Joseph Fry for the chocolate bar.  In 1847, he figured out how to make a moldable chocolate paste. Two years later, the Cadbury brothers perfected the process.  It wasn’t until 1875 though, that milk chocolate was mass produced.  Daniel Peter of Switzerland led the way.  Soon, Switzerland far surpassed Spain in chocolate production, and remains at the top today.

Contrary to popular belief, chocolate does not cause acne or migraines, and allergies to chocolate are rare. It is actually seen as healthy in moderation.  It contains phenylethylamine, which mimics the feeling of being in love, and can cause mild euphoria.    The many purported benefits included lifting mild depression, acting as a mild stimulant, and providing iron and fiber in small doses.  Long term, it could be good for your heart.  Dark chocolate is the most beneficial form.  For those of you white chocolate lovers out there, sorry, but it’s not really chocolate.  It does contain cacao butter, but it doesn’t have any chocolate liquer in it. 

            Chocolate is the Prozac of plants.”  Deborah Waterhouse

So what is your favorite kind of chocolate?  Mine is Lindt Dark with Sea Salt. 
Some chocolate to try:
Scharffen Berger, Guittard, Ghirardelli, Baker’s, Nestle, and Hershey from the     U.S.
Valrhona and Michael Cluizel from France
Callbaut from Belgium
Droste from Holland
Lindt and Tobler from Switzerland
Green and Blacks from England
El Rey from Venezuela
And how should you enjoy chocolate?  Carole Bloom, a professional chocolate taster recommends following these steps.  First, choose 6 similar blocks.  For example, you might choose 6 different brands of plain dark chocolate.  Look for a smooth, dark, glossy
surface.  Hold each block for a few seconds.  It should melt slightly.  Note the aroma.  Break off a piece.  It shouldn’t crumble.  Place the piece in the roof of your mouth and hold it there with your tongue for 20-30 seconds.  Allow it to melt.  Enjoy the flavor and texture.  And unlike wine or coffee tasting, don’t spit!

As you open your box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day, remember to thank the ancient Mayans and Aztecs for this extraordinary culinary contribution.  As Elizabeth Rozin says in her book Blue Corn and Chocolate,

            It left its home a bitter stimulant drink and returned as a
              sweet confection, a food of pleasure, a food of fun.”

And I couldn’t be happier that it did!

Some famous people talking about chocolate:

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt. Charles M. Schulz

 Chocolate is the first luxury. It has so many things wrapped up in it: Deliciusness in the moment, childhood memories, and that grin-inducing feeling of getting a reward for being good.
Mariska Hargitay

Let's face it, a nice creamy chocolate cake does a lot for a lot of people; it does for me. Audrey Hepburn

My greatest strength is common sense. I'm really a standard brand - like Campbell's tomato soup or Baker's chocolate. Katharine Hepburn

Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana. The researchers also discovered other similarities between the two but can't remember what they are. Matt Lauer

Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands - and then eat just one of the pieces.
Judith Viorst
Switzerland is a place where they don't like to fight, so they get people to do their fighting for them while they ski and eat chocolate.
Larry David

You know, I live a monastic lifestyle. No, I do. I do live in extremes, basically. I go back and forth. Once every six months, I'll have a day where I eat more chocolate than has ever been consumed by a human being.
Jim Carrey

The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.
 Thomas Jefferson