Myths of the Mayan Long Count calendar

For countless years, there have been predictions that the world would end on a certain date. As those dates have come and gone without incident, new dates by doomsday prophesiers have emerged with little basis in science. The Mayan Long Count calendar, which ends on December 21, 2012, is the most imminent one of these, with some saying that the Mayans predicted the end of the world on that date. While credible scientists eschew such predictions, the Mayan calendar nevertheless bears a closer look.

The Mayan calendar consists of three separate calendars that are used simultaneously: the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar) and the Haab (civil calendar). The latter two calendars identify days; the Long Count identifies the years. The three calendars work together as a series of interlocking wheels of different sizes, each one marking a different time span.

The Tzolkin calendar is a 260-day calendar, with days numbering 1 through 13 in a continuous cycle, for 20 cycles throughout the year. These cycles mark religious and ceremonial events.

The Haab is a 365-day solar calendar comprised of 18 months of 20 days each and one month of five days. These two together form the Calendar Round, which repeats in 52-year intervals. The Calendar Round is still used in some parts of Guatemala.

At some point, possibly as early as 300 B.C., the Long Count calendar was added to the Calendar Round. The Long Count is an astronomical calendar, with each universal cycle lasting 2,880,000 days. The beginning date of the Long Count calendar has been determined to be August 11, 3114 B.C. in the Gregorian calendar, or September 6 in the Julian calendar. The date marks the creation of human beings, according to the Maya.

It is a myth that the Maya invented the calendar. The Haab and Tzolkin calendars were already in existence, dating back to around 2,000 B.C.; the Maya were simply one of cultures that used it. The earliest known inscription of a Long Count date is 36 B.C., at the Chiapa de Corzo archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico. Because this is outside of the Mayan territory, it is believed that the first use of the Long Count calendar predates the Mayans. However, the Mayans made improvements to the calendar.

Mayan time is marked in days (one day is called a kin), periods of 20 days (a uinal, or 20 kin), 360 days (a tun, or 18 uinal), 7,200 days (a katun, or 20 tun) and 144,000 days (a baktun, or 20 katun). December 21, 2012 marks the ending of the 13th baktun, which ends the Long Count cycle of 5,126 solar years.

A typical Mayan date would be a combination of all three calendars, for example: 4 Ahau, 8 Kumku. The is the Long Count date, 4 Ahau is the Tzolkin date, and 8 Kumku is the Haab date. At the end of the 13th baktun, the Long Count calendar resets to

The ancient Maya reportedly believed that with each end of the Universal cycle, the Universe itself would "reset" by ending and starting over —  not just the calendar — hence the doomsday interpretation. This interpretation was encouraged by a 1,300-year-old stone tablet from the Tortuguero archaeological site in Mexico, which contains hieroglyphs depicting the Mayan god of creation and war, Bolon Yokte, at the end of the 13th baktun.  

With no specific threat indicated by the Maya, a number of doomsday theories have cropped up. Such threats include either a meteor, comet, asteroid, or newly discovered Planet "Nibiru" colliding with the Earth; the magnetic poles reversing, causing a series of mega-earthquakes; even a black hole spontaneously appearing near Earth to swallow it whole. Credible scientists have of course debunked these prophecies as being unrealistic, at least in terms of imminence.

The most recent discovery debunking the doomsday myth was announced in May of this year in Science by William Saturno, professor of archaeology at Boston University, when he uncovered evidence at the Xultun site in Guatemala that indicates time is marked past the year 3500.

It is another myth that the Mayans support the doomsday theory. In 2011, Wandering Wolf, also known as Don Alejandro Cirilo Perez Oxlaj, Mayan Grand Elder, leader of National Council of Elders Mayas, Xinca and Garifuna, made a statement that the end of the cycle simply represents the beginning of a new one, not the end of the world. He said, "2012 is not the end of the world, nor did we ever predict that it would end: not now, not at the end of our Long Count calendar, not on December 21, 2012." Instead, the Maya believe that it heralds the Shift of the Ages, an era of expanded consciousness.

Most people appear to be resting easier about end-of-the-world predictions and are dismissing the idea. Inevitably, however, doomsday predictors will choose another date at some point in the future, based on even less scientific evidence than the resetting of the Mayan Long Count calendar.