The truth about the Mayan Calendar(s)

Back in January of 2012, I took a two day Mayan Calendar workshop at the Adler Planetarium that was done by astronomers from the University of California at Berkeley.  I learned a lot about Mayan culture, their astronomy, and most importantly, their calendards.  Yes, that's plural.  

The intent of the workshop was to equip participants to speak intelligently about the Mayan Calendar.  For the past year, I have done a number of presentations at local libraries, star parties, and astronomy clubs about this topic.  Having completed all of those, I have put together a good portion of that material online now, given that we are approaching the December 21, 2012 date.

So, what is the truth about the Mayan Calendar?


Earthquakes…. Magnetic field reversals…. Global calamity….Galactic alignments…  A killer asteroid… all of these and other disasters have been associated with the Mayan calendar.  It all sounds pretty scary, right?  But what is the truth about it?  How did it get to be correlated with December 21, 2012?  And what did the Maya say about their calendar ending?  In this video, you will learn the basics of the Maya calendar system so you can speak intelligently about it and keep your friends and relatives calm.

Mayan Calendar interlocking wheelsFirst things first: The Maya have many calendars.  Notice I said, “have” not “had.”  The Maya are alive and well, and live in the Yucatan Peninsula area of southern Mexico and much of Guatemala.  And note that I also said, “calendars” as in, more than one.  The fact is, unlike the Western world, which today relies on the Gregorian calendar system, which replaced the similar Julian calendar, the Maya use many different calendars which overlap.

 For example, there is the Tzolkin calendar, a 260 calendar that works out to about 9 months in our Gregorian calendar system.  9 months is a significant length of time for more than just the human gestational period; it also is about the length of time it takes the planet Venus to rise to it’s highest point as “morning” or “evening” star, and then set past the horizon again.  As the third brightest object in the sky, knowing when this “star” would appear and for how long would undoubtedly have had importance.  Additionally, 260 days is approximately the length of time it takes corn – or more accurately, maize - to grow in the lowland regions of that part of the world, a vital Maya dietary staple.

 As with any culture, knowing when to plant crops is a necessary survival skill.  Before clocks and paper calendars, humans measured time by watching the sky.  In the area of the world where the Maya live, in the tropics, there are two days every year where the Sun lies directly overhead at noon, called a zenith day, the zenith being that point directly over our heads.  In that region, for the Maya, from one zenith day, past winter solstice, to the next zenith day is…. 260 days.  It is clear how 260 days would be have importance to the Maya in ancient times.  The next two occurrences would be 105 days apart. 

 To count a solar year, the Maya use a calendar called the Ha’ab.  This is actually a 360 day calendar, composed of 18 months with 20 days per month.  The additional 5 or 6 days to make up the rest of the solar year were simply added, and often considered unlucky.  But the 20 days-long month would have made a lot of sense for the Maya, as their numbering system is based on 20’s, unlike the Western system of 10’s, and our calendar which at 28, 30 and 31 days is only loosely based on the 29.5 day revolution of the Moon

maya numbersThe ancient Maya used a numbering system inscribed on stones called “Stela” on which we can read important dates and other information quite easily.  A system of bars and dots were used, in a way similar to the hash-marks we used today.  Dots would be used initially, up to four, then a bar used for five.  Additional dots and bars would be utilized up to 19, and at 20, the system would go “up a level” and place a single dot in a new row, to represent 20.  Now the single digits could begin anew.  Likewise, a level above the 20’s was used.  After nineteen was reached in the “20’s” row, a dot would be placed on a third row, the 400’s.  Numbering up to 8000 was possible using this simple, three tiered system.

 So how does the “end of the world” fit in with all this?  During the height of the ancient Maya civilizition, between 200 and 900 AD of the Gregorian calendar, a calendar called the “Long Count” was used.  It lasted for 5125.37 years, and the best estimates of correlating it to the Gregorian one is that it begins in 3114 AD on a solar zenith day, and ending on… you guessed it – December 21, 2012, a winter solstice day.  The Maya got the concept of this calendar from a civilization preceding them, the Olmec, from whom they also got their numbering system.  However, the Long Count calendar largely fell out of use in 900 AD, when the Maya civilization collapsed.  The Maya were still there, but their temples and cities were no longer used.

 There is very little information about why this may have occurred.  The Spanish invaded and conquered this area in the 16-th century, some 600 years after the Long Count use ended.  When they did, much of the historical records of the Maya were destroyed.  In addition to the stela of the long-since jungle-covered cities, only a few paper-like records survived, known as codices.  After deciphering the glyphs on these codices and those on the stela and temples, much has been learned about how the Maya counted time and understood astronomy – and they were excellent astronomers too.  An astronomy workshop was recently discovered just this year that sheds light on the ancient Maya’s astronomy calculations – which, importantly, extend BEYOND the so-called “end” of the Mayan Long Count calendar.  There is also an 8000 year Maya calendar that goes beyond the 5125 year Long Count.

So here’s the key question: Why would the Maya include information that went beyond the so-called “end of the world”?  Oh sure, there are so-called prophets out there who claim secret knowledge of the ancient Maya.  And everyone loves a good secret.  But not all secrets are true, especially when hard facts exists to the contrary.

 Pyramid at Chichen Itza, showing shadow at the equinoxBased on this and other evidence, what we DO know of the Maya is that they were excellent at predicting when RECURRING astronomical events would happen: Lunar eclipses, the positions of planets, when rainy seasons would be arriving so crops could be planted properly, even the exact location of the Sun so they could temples like the one at Chichen Itza, which on the equinox displays a serpentine shape based on the stepped pyramid, ending with a serpent’s head at the bottom of the stairs – serpents being important to Maya culture. 

 Yes, the Maya indeed knew a lot about astronomy – that astronomy workshop no doubt aided in dynastic rule because rulers could make accurate predictions of astronomical events, helping them keep their grip on power.  But what about earthquakes, temperature changes, magnetic field reversals, or Nibiru?  There’s no evidence the Maya knew about those things occurring with any regularity in the future.  Earthquakes are always occurring on Earth – that’s the nature of our planet’s crust.  We know that the temperature is increasing, and whether you believe that is man made or not – it actually had nothing to do with solar activity, which is presently down compared to the 1960’s, when the temperature was cooler on Earth.  Magnetic field reversals DO happen as well – but take thousands of years to happen, as we can determine from the orientation of iron on the ocean’s floors.  And Nibiru?  Well, if Nibiru did exist, two things would be certain: 1) We’d either see it by now, or 2) it is going so fast, there’s no way it would hit us.  On top of that, how would the Maya have known that, with no telescopes or optical aid?  And why have a calendar going beyond when some killer planet was to end the world?

Oh yes, and one last one: The alignment of the Earth, Sun and center of our galaxy.  Assuming that the Maya even DID know about the center of our galaxy as such an thing (they did see the Milky Way, but referred to it as a road), Earth pretty much lines up with the Sun and the center of our galaxy twice a year: Once in the winter and once in the summer.  Given that over 1100 years have passed and over 2200 syzygies of Earth, Sun and galactic center, astronomers today are more than adequately certain that nothing bad will happen this coming December.

 And what about the Maya today?  After all, the Maya still live there.  What do THEY say about the “End of the world” per the Maya Calendar?  Number one, they don’t used the Long Count calendar anymore.  Number two, look at what this Maya elder has to say about it.  Maya Elder Apolinario Chile Pixtun said:  "I am fed up with this stuff; doomsday theories are Western - not Mayan - ideas."  And lastly, even if they did use it, the Maya tell us that it would be a time of great celebration.  One Creation cycle will have ended, and anther one beginning.  Didn’t we all celebrate the year 1999 to the year 2000?  Okay, we had a computer thing with Y2K, but still, even Prince wrote a song about partying in 1999, right?

So the Maya did not predict that the world ends.  Though it is still within the realm of possibility that something we do NOT know about could cause a catastrophic situation on Earth on December 21, 2012, the probability of it occurring is very, very low.  And if it does happen, it won’t be because the Maya predicted it.

 So have a party on December 21.  If the world does end, you’ll have gone out in style.  And if we’re all still here, you’ll have celebrated the beginning of a new Maya Creation Cycle.  And that’s a party worth having. See you on December 22nd, 2012.