Accessibility links

Breaking News

A Reset, Not Doomsday: How The Mayans Measured Time

The Mayan temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent and Mayan snake deity, is seen at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, in the southern state of Yucatan, Mexico.
The Mayan temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent and Mayan snake deity, is seen at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, in the southern state of Yucatan, Mexico.
Is the end of the world coming on December 21? Some people are worried it will, based on an ancient Mayan calendar that comes to an end on that date.

RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc talked to leading Maya scholar and anthropologist Geoffrey Braswell from the University of California in San Diego about the Mesoamerican civilization’s time-counting science.

RFE/RL: There's a lot of fear of -- or at least, a lot of interest in -- the end of the world coming on December 21. Those saying the end is nigh mostly base their prophecy on the Mayan calendar, which is about to come to an end on that date. But the Mayans are known to have had various ways of counting the time. Could you offer us some details?

Geoffrey Braswell:
The three most important calendars -- one is a 260-day ritual year, another is a 365-day year and together those two repeat every 52 years in a big cycle [Eds: known as the Calendar Round]. But they also kept track of time in 20-year units called katuns, and 20 katuns is a baktun. So they counted the days since creation almost as though your car counts the days or the miles of the kilometers. And just as the old-fashioned odometers had wheels that turned, so did the wheels in the Mayan calendar. What's happening right now is that we're at a point where the car odometer might reset back to all zeroes.

RFE/RL: Are all these still being used by the present-day Maya population? Are they also preparing for Doomsday?

The 260-day ritual calendar has always been used, and today, Maya priests still use it in highland Guatemala. The 365-day year was also used up to the time of [European] conquest and later. The Long Count [eds: calendar used to track longer periods of time] date -- that's the important one for 2012 issue -- the Maya themselves stopped using that some time around 1100 or so, maybe 1000. However, there are records they were using the other calendars that overlapped with that, so we were able to more or less figure it out. Also, the Maya kept track of astronomical events, particularly lunar calendars, and those often appeared alongside the Long Count -- this is the number of days since creation.
Geoffrey Braswell
Geoffrey Braswell

RFE/RL: So the prophecy is based on a calendar -- the 5,125-year Long Count -- which the Maya stopped using a millennium ago. Could you explain it in more detail?

[Besides the ritual 260-day calendar] the Maya calendar had a solar year of 365 days, they did not have leap days or leap years, like we do. The Maya dating didn't have leap years at all, so every year they went off by approximately a quarter of a day. But they could count time -- days -- very well, hence the Long Count, which is the calendar of the number of days since creation in August 11, 3114 B.C.

RFE/RL: Meaning that the 13th baktun is about to end this Long Count on December 21 after some...1,872,000 days. That is, indeed a very long count. Is there any specific connection in Mayan mythology between this date and the end of the world?

In the Mayan calendar or inscriptions themselves we only have two mentions of the 2012 date at all, which seems to suggest that they didn't think it was very important if they only mentioned it twice. In one case, a monument from the site of Tortuguero [in Mexico] mentions a defeat in battle back in the 600s or 700s of a local king and then it counts forward to this day (December 21), and it says the Bolon Yokte -- or the nine gods -- will descend from Heaven and will do...something. Unfortunately, that something, that hieroglyph, is broken off.

ALSO READ: Top 10 End-Of-The-World Predictions

RFE/RL: That beats Hollywood in terms of a good cliffhanger....

Yes, the nine gods will be sent and...aarghhh. It's kind of like a Monty Python sketch. The second text was just found this year and it too discusses events in the 600s, one politician visiting another and playing a ball game, of all things, and then it counts forward, it counts to one major ending which took place in 831 or I should say, [Calendar Round] cycle ending, which was 100,000 in the Mayan calendar and then it counts forward to 2012. So in that case, again, they don't say what's going to happen.

RFE/RL: Do the Maya say anything about the world not ending on December 21?

There is a very important text from the Mayan site of Palenque [in Mexico] carved by King Pakal, who died in 683. Well, this text at Palenque actually will count forward to the next major cycle [Long Count], which is in 4772, October 11. Well, the king says that eight days after that next cycle closes he will return and rule once again. So, clearly he didn't believe the world was going to end. He had big plans for 2,700 years from now. So, no, in the hieroglyphs themselves we have no clear information that the world will end and we even have on text that says it won't because there will be things that happen after this date.

RFE/RL: One of the first questions tweeted to Pope Benedict, who launched his Twitter account this month, was something like, “is the world going to end on December 21,” and it prompted assurance from the Vatican that a doomsday scenario "is not even worth discussing." Other religious leaders have also given similar statements. To what extent is this reflecting people's need for balance between scientific fact and religious reassurance?

There is some sort of desire to make a synthesis of both spiritual ideas and also science. And you can trace that back to theosophy at the turn of the last century. So I think there is a synthesis here of both science and spirituality, which in our age is something that people want. They want to somehow be able to cross that great divide -- what [British scientist and novelist] C.P. Snow called "the two cultures" -- and try to find meaning in both worlds.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.