2012: It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

November 10, 2009

2012 – hype and reality

In upcoming movies (yes, plural), we are foretold the end of the world, set to happen in 2012. One trailer shows graphic images of massive tidal waves crashing over the Himalayas, wiping out all life on the planet. If one scans late night TV programs (think along the lines of preachers who come on in the wee hours of the morning) as well as the internet, you will find a great variety of references to this date and the impending doom associated with it.

Why? What in the world is this all about?

Many people think the Maya predicted the world to end in 2012.

I see two things going on here: hype and reality. There is a huge disconnect between the two. Let’s start with reality: timekeeping in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. Then we will address the fantasy world that has been built on top of that historical reality.

Among the Prehispanic, or Pre-Columbian people of the Americas, the ancient Maya were accomplished astronomers. Unlike us, the Maya had a different perception of time. They considered time passing in terms of cycles, we think of it as a never-ending linear progression of days growing into weeks, months, years, etc. With the Maya, time was counted in units of twenty, a trait they shared with other Pre-Columbian people in Mesoamerica. Moreover, the Maya also kept track of time for various purposes. Sometimes they counted the days for purely practical purposes, such as when to plant and harvest crops and sometimes they used the calendar for ritual purposes.

Aztec calendar stone on display at the
American Museum of Natural History, NY.
Creative Commons License photo credit: admiretime

Before we go any further, we need to acknowledge that in addition to the number 20, the number 13 was also extremely important to Precolumbian people, including the ancient Maya. We see the importance of thirteen reflected in the fact that they recognized no less than thirteen levels in heaven. Keep these two numbers in mind: 13 and 20. They will come back often further down.

Before we talk about the Maya calendars, we need to take a closer look at the basic units that they used to count time. The basic unit was a day, or kin. Maya specialists have identified up to eight additional (and much larger) increments of time, for a total of nine orders of time periods. The next level of day keeping was that of twenty days, or uinal. The third order – named tun – should be comprised of 400 days, but this is where the Maya introduced the “exception to the rule.” The tun consisted of 360 days (18 times 20 rather than 20 times 20). After that, no more exceptions and so we have:

20 tuns = 1 katun, or 7,200 days
20 katuns = 1 baktun, or 144,000 days
20 baktuns = 1 pictun, or 2,880,000 days
20 pictuns = 1 calabtun, or 57,600,000 days
20 calabtuns = 1 kinchiltun, or 1,152,000,000 days
20 kinchiltuns = 1 alautun, or 23,040,000,000 days.

These numbers are enough to make one’s head spin. Suffice it to say that they reflect an awareness among Maya timekeepers of what we would call “deep time.” That in itself is interesting. They were not just happy-go-lucky, carpe diem types hanging out in the rainforest.

There were two calendrical cycles in use when the Spanish arrived on the scene, now almost 500 years ago: one cycle was 260 days long (referred to as Tzolkin) and a 365 day cycle (known as Haab).

The origins for the 260 day cycle remain unknown. Some have suggested that it represents the human gestational cycle; others think it is the result of multiplying two numbers important to Pre-Columbian people (13 and 20). There are thirteen Maya heavens; and, as mentioned earlier, they count in units of 20. It is therefore conceivable that they came up with a calendar round combining these two numbers. We have evidence that the 260 day cycle goes back as far 500 BC and very likely goes back in time even further. It is also important to know that this calendar is still in use among some of the Maya communities today, among them the Cakchiquel Maya in the Guatemalan highlands.

The 260 day calendar served a ceremonial purpose; it was the basis for prophesies. One’s birthday was recorded by this calendar and the deity associated with your birthday became closely associated with that person’s destiny. This calendar of 260 days was not divided into what we would call months; rather it was made up of a sequence of 260 days with each day identified by attaching a number of one to thirteen to one of the twenty Maya day names.

The second calendar, comprising 365 days, appears very similar to our own solar calendar. We add a day every four years to account for the fact that year is actually 365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes long. The Maya arrived at their 365 days by coming up with 18 months (each 20 days long) and by adding 5 days at the end, for a total of 365 days. These five final days are known as Uayeb and were, in general, considered to be bad luck days.

 Page of an Aztec manuscript,
the Codex Borbonicus, a divinatory almanac.

The two calendrical systems intertwined to form a “calendar round.” The Maya referred to a day by the number and name it had within the 260 day calendar and its number and month name within the 365 day calendar. To enable us to grasp this potentially confusing concept, quite often these two calendars and the interaction between them is represented graphically as a set of meshing calendar wheels. Because the two calendars are of different length, a day will receive a particular name only every 52 years. You can think of this unit of time – 52 years – as the Maya equivalent of our century. The end of such a 52 year cycle was celebrated by all known Mesoamerican civilizations, among them the Maya and the Aztec. The Aztec had ceremonies aimed at pleasing the gods as one such 52 year cycle came to an end, in the hopes of ensuring that another cycle would follow. We do not know if the ancient Maya shared this belief. What we can say is that most people would not have had any use for a calendrical cycle longer than 52 years, as that was probably the upper limit of a human life in those days.

The priests, however…they were a different matter. They did count days over enormous spans of time, and this is how in this story we start to get closer to the doomsday hoopla scenario surrounding the year 2012.

Chichen Itza's Kukulcan Temple
El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
Creative Commons License photo credit: kyle simourd

The Maya stand out from other Mesoamerican cultures in that they also had a third way of reckoning time. We refer to it as the Long Count, with encompasses cycles each 5128 years long (with each cycle representing thirteen baktun cycles). We know that this system of counting deep time was in use, and used on carved stone monuments, from approximately 36 BC to 909 AD in our calendar. For most of those years, these dates appear on Maya monuments.

The dates that appear on Maya monuments refer to this Long Count system. Maya inscriptions listing events, names and places would place these within the context of how many days had elapsed since the start of the current 5128 year cycle. The current great cycle was thought to have started in 3114 BC. It will end 5128 years later in…. the year 2012.

And this is where the reality ends and the hype starts.

What does it mean, or, what did it mean to the ancient Maya, that the current cycle of time will come to an end in 2012, December 21, according to most movie scripts? Honestly? It means nothing at all. A new cycle will start and we will have more hype coming to a movie theater near you in another 5128 years, in the year 7140 AD.

My advice would be not to max out your credit cards, or do any other irresponsible things. Do not let these hucksters misrepresent the past; let them wallow in their ignorance. Some sources already got it right. As for us, I hope that you will join me in appreciating and marveling at the Maya’s ability to count time well beyond the horizon.

That is the real story and that is worth remembering.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

20 responses to “2012: It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”

  1. Jill R. Moffitt says:

    John Moffitt and I visited a number of Mayan ruins in October around Cancun. One really experienced and knowledgeable native guide who has worked at Chichén-Itzá for 4 decades told us that the Mayan civilization disintegrated before they could create a calendar beyond 2012. It makes sense. How far ahead do any of our own published calendars go? Yes, we have computers that can project calendars to infinity. Is something like that actually printed on a lasting medium which won’t disintegrate in a few years like our ubiquitous cheap picture calendars? Exactly how long will even our computer data bases last should our own civilization disintegrates into chaos and we revert back to basic survival at Maslow’s level one or two hierarchy?

  2. Dirk Van Tuerenhout says:

    Hello Jill,

    Your guide was correct in stating that Maya civilization collapsed. They ceased to be an independent culture as they were conquered by the Spanish. I would like to add however, and your guide may have mentioned this as well, that the Maya are still with us. I would surmise that your guide probably had Maya ancestry in his family. You can travel to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, as well as Belize and Guatemala and still hear Maya spoken today. (You can even hear Maya spoken in Houston and other major cities in the US. How cool is that?)

    With regard to the fact that the Maya could not possibly have created this long-running calendar, because their culture disintegrated well before, please note that the calendar round that is coming to an end is an example of this Long Count phenomenon, a way of timekeeping we see evidenced in the Maya area before the arrival of the Spanish. What makes that particular way of timekeeping so special is that is counts time in huge increments of years, 5128 to be exact. The cycle mentioned on the ancient carved monuments is the same cycle still running today. However, it is close to coming full circle. That is supposed to happen Dec 21, 2012.

    Your question about the longevity of the medium is not what I was referring to. Although there are a few Pre-Columbian calendrical manuscripts still in existence, the point I wanted to make is that the computations they were making refer to a huge calendrical cycle, a wheel if you want, that slowly rotates. That rotation is coming to an end in 2012 and then will go on for another go around of 5128 years before we get to the same spot again. The actual survival of the medium – paper, stone, wood, or even plastic – is not really all that important in this context.

    I hope this clarifies things for you. Thanks for your email.

  3. Greg says:

    Thank you for this great article.

    It is impressive that they ended up using a 365 day calendar much like that used by us until recently, so they apparently tuned into the solar cycle. Are there plausible ideas for the use of such a long range as 5128 years? 5128 is not perfectly divisible by 20 nor 13.

    Might there be some astronomical significance, such as a comet cycle? Perhaps one our modern astronomers have not realized yet? Our window into their use of this time only started in 36 BC, so we do not know how many 5128 year cycles they went through or why they started this current cycle when they did.

    Surely there is speculation on the reasons for a 5128 year cycle. Do tell!

  4. reuben says:

    Greg: In the article, it says that it’s 13 baktun cycles, which is 1,872,000 days, or about 5128 and 3/4 years.

  5. Dirk Van Tuerenhout says:

    Hello Rueben,

    Thank you for your email and for answering Greg’s question so succinctly. That is indeed the answer to his first question.

    As to how many 5128 year-cycles they may have had, it is impossible to say.


    Dirk Van Tuerenhout

  6. Don says:

    Dear Dirk,
    Thank you for shedding light onto these silly gullible people who are willing to believe ANYTHING that comes out in a movie. I’ve been researching this for bout a year now, and not once have i believed these “predictions”. You have put everything there is to know here. Thank you I will defiantly be referring other to read this.

  7. Kim says:

    This was a very interesting article. I’ve heard many stories about the world coming to an end. I can’t say I believe it, but something tells me that if the Mayans were right about all the other happenings in our world’s lifetime, something will happen in 2012.

  8. M Khan says:

    The world (but not the universe) can end because of earthquake, tsunami, meteor strike, nuclear war, supernova, and some other natural or man made disaster. These are however just local ends that have nothing to do with The Day of Judgment. End will also not happen on any arbitrary date like December 2012. The end of the universe is an entirely different phenomenon that is built into the laws of the universe. The contraction of the universe with reversal of time and gravity will commence the beginning of the end which will last for thousands and possibly millions of years. We will be removed from the regressing effects of reversed time as we come back alive in our own time. We will the be taken across many dimensions to beyond this universe. A beautiful natural
    mechanism that is based on the laws of physics will cause all that to happen. This real end has nothing to do with wishful thinking and predictions of priests or shamans.

  9. mkhan says:

    The world will not end because of earthquakes, tsunami, meteor strike, nuclear war, supernova, or any other natural or man made disaster. End will not happen on any arbitrary date like December 2012. The end of the universe has been designed into the laws of the universe by the creator. The contraction of the universe will commence the beginning of the end which will last for thousands and possibly millions of years. We will however be gone far before that time removed from the dying universe.

  10. Dirk says:


    Thanks for your comments. I agree, the world will not come to an end in December 2012. However, I disagree with your assertion that this alleged end of the world is the product of wishful thinking of priests or shamans. The contemporary Maya do not claim that, nor did their ancestors. At the same time, I have seen late night TV evangelists make that point, selling books and dvd’s in the process, while completely missing the meaning of the calendrical event that is set to occur on December 21, 2012.

  11. Gregor says:


    The Maya elders have recently spoken regarding the rising fear around 2012 and the events occuring in the world now. The elders spoke up to warn humanity and to clear misconceptions, being spread mostly by non-Mayan self-proclaimed gurus and likes. Many of them do this for their own personal gain, to exploit the name of the Maya or to spread fear that the world is going to end in 2012. The Maya did not predict that. Still, in words of Don Alejandro, elected leader of National Council of Elders Mayas, Xinca and Garifuna, we are entering times of great pain if we don’t immediately restore the balance to our planet (http://www.shiftoftheages.com/maya-message-2012).

    The Mayan elders also partnered with the California Company, Positive Purpose Productions (P-Qubd LLC), to deliver the message of the Maya to the world as part of the Shift of the Ages film project. Shift of the Ages will be their first official discourse to the world. More about it: http://kck.st/e7rTce



  12. Time Meddler says:

    Yet again the myth that a “great cycle” comprises 5,128 years, when there is no evidence of this at all. In fact, as stated in your own article, there are 20 baktuns in a piktun, not 13. Using this logic is like saying that be cause our week has 7 days then this means that our millennium would end after 700 years because 7 is such a significant number to out culture. There is nothing to suggest that the Mayan “great cycle” was not actually 20 baktuns, a period of around 7,885 years, and that will not end until October in the year 4772.

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