It’s Baktunalia! Astronomy VP Carolyn Sumners on why Dec. 21 is cause for celebration, not wild imagination

December 21, 2012: It’s not the End of the World — it’s the Baktunalia! It’s time for a celebration, not an apocalypse.

Here are the facts: The Maya long count calendar will go from 12.19.19.17.19 to 13.0.0.0.0 as we go from December 20 to December 21, 2012. So December 20 is New Baktun Eve and December 21 is New Baktun Day.

(FYI for those who like numbers: The five digits of the Mayan long count are base 20, except for the second number from the right, which is base 18. Our numbers are base 10. We have ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The Maya long count has kins, winals, tuns, katuns, and baktuns. For the Maya, a day is called a “kin.” Twenty kins make a winal. Eighteen winals, or 360 kins, equal a tun, making the tun about a year long. Twenty tuns make a katun and 20 katuns equal a baktun. Thirteen baktuns is just over 5,125 years.)

The Roman Saturnalia festival also occurred at this time — a celebration featuring food, gifts, and celebrations around the Winter Solstice. Early Christians could celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, hiding their event within the Saturnalia festivities. Hence, I’m calling this year’s rare event a Baktunalia!

See 2012: Mayan Prophecies at the Burke Baker Planetarium

Did the Maya calendar-makers over 2,000 years ago plan for their long-count calendar to reach the 13th Baktun on December 21? This is possible, but it seems unlikely. However, December is the Winter Solstice, a day the Maya recognized as the shortest day and longest night of the year — the day when the sun rises furthest in the southeast, sets furthest in the southwest, and makes its lowest and shortest path across the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere. The Maya astronomers observed the sun on the winter solstice to document its southernmost rising and the promise that the sun would now start moving northward. There would be another spring and a new growing season.

Unlike the Internet doomsday prophets, science does not support an apocalypse in 2012. Solar activity maximum is happening in 2013. Thus far, all natural disasters in 2012 have been within the normal range of activity on a geologically active planet with dynamic weather patterns.

But there is one interesting astronomical alignment. On December 21, the sun will reach its lowest point in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere while it is in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way and directly between Earth and the Milky Way Galaxy’s center. This alignment has been in place for several years, but is often cited by the doomsday prophets. The black hole near the galactic center has the same effect on us today as it does on any day. This alignment makes no difference. Nor is it significant on December 21. After all, the sun is its strongest on this date south of the equator.

Lost in all the apocalyptic talk are the very significant achievements of the Maya regarding both time-keeping and astronomy. In the Burke Baker Planetarium, we have a show called Mayan Prophecies that visits four classic Maya cities (Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque), as they would have looked over a thousand years ago. At Uxmal, we see a Maya astronomer watching the sun’s rays entering the Temple of the Magician just two 20-day months before the sun would stand overhead and the rains would come. After this event, the astronomer could prepare farmers to plant their corn and the king to plan festivals.

At Chichen Itza, the feathered serpent god called Kukulcan would climb down his pyramid, El Castillo, on the first day of spring. Astronomers would then know when to have festivities with human sacrifices, trading human blood for the coming rains — all to appease Kukulcan and the rain god, Chaac. We actually show this sacrifice (tastefully) in the full dome and very up-close in the Mayan Prophecies planetarium show.

At Tikal (located in the lowlands of Guatemala), the astronomer would climb his pyramid, now called Temple 4, to watch the rising sun on December 21. When the sun rose over Temple 3, it marked the winter solstice. After this date, the astronomer knew that the sun would rise more to the north each day and that the rainy season would come again.

At Palenque, there are inscriptions inside major temples featuring trees for the seasons. The great King Pacal supposedly rose and journeyed to the heavens on December 21. Inscriptions at Palenque also explain the beginning of the long count cycle on a date we know now as August 13, 3114 BCE. Three temples at Palenque symbolize the three hearthstones of creation, with a central fire lit at the beginning of the current long count cycle. There are also three stars in our constellation Orion that represent these hearthstones.

For all their predictive power, the Maya astronomer could not foresee his own apocalypse, which happened over a thousand years ago. A combination of factors adding to decades of drought brought famine to the Classic Mayan cities. This great civilization, that had measured time and predicted the rains, collapsed and its people returned to the rainforest and mountains. The story of the Maya people is perhaps a greater predictor of the challenges we face in 2012 and beyond.

Fascinated? Discover how the Maya aligned their pyramids and temples to watch their sky gods and used interlocking calendars to record the past and predict the future in our Mayan Prophecies lecture. Dr. Carolyn Sumners will share how archaeological, historical and astronomical records were pieced together to learn more about the Maya. This lecture includes a viewing of film 2012: Mayan Prophecies. For lecture tickets, click here.

Debunking doomsday? Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout on the real history of the Maya

One of the most vexing questions that seems to torment a whole lot of people these days is: “do I need to buy Christmas gifts this year?” A lot has been made of the Maya calendar, its end on December 21 this year, and the end of the world as we know it.

But the question that vexes me is: why do people even believe in this you-know-what? You can find the answers to these questions and more at the newly opened Maya exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History surveys about 3,500 years of Maya history, starting with the earliest evidence, which dates back to about 1500 BC. The story covers the colonial period and ends with the contemporary Maya. Toward the end of the exhibit, visitors have a chance to learn more about the different ways of Maya timekeeping. The exhibit ends with a video featuring Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining that the fearmongers who talk of a once-in-a-lifetime celestial alignment with all kinds of dire consequences actually “forgot to tell us something.”

In this blog, I want to address the basics of Maya history; I will start with the who, when and where questions.

First: Who are the Maya?

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryThe term “Maya” refers to people who used to live, and continue to live, in southern portions of Mexico (including the Yucatan Peninsula, Tabasco and Chiapas), as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. The term “Maya” is a western label; the Maya refer to themselves by the language they speak. Someone might say, “I am a Mam”, or “I am a Chorti.” This translates into “I am part of the people who speak Mam, or Chorti.” Today, 30 different Mayan languages are still spoken. Additional languages have disappeared since the arrival of the Spaniards.

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Maya are still around, and so are many parts of their traditions. Although their culture was absorbed into that of the Conquistadores, there remain many vibrant expressions of Maya culture. In addition to the geographic areas identified in the map above, Maya people now also call other parts of the world home, including Houston.

The History of Maya research

A strange thing happened when the first Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas. On the one hand, their presence brought about upheaval and ended the independence of indigenous cultures, such as the Aztecs, Maya and many others. On the other hand, some Europeans were fascinated by the “exotic” nature of these new cultures and set out to study them. One such person was Diego de Landa, the second bishop of Yucatán.

Diego de Landa manuscript on the ancient MayaA page from de Landa’s manuscript, with an attempt to represent the ancient Maya”alphabet. One can see renderings of maya glyphs with associated Latin script letters. (Image courtesy of Archaeology.about.com)

Initially, most of the people who studied the Maya and other indigenous people were friars. Their goal was to convert people, and that required learning about their new flock — including learning the language. These friars produced dictionaries for several Maya languages, which have been a great help to modern researchers in their attempts to translate ancient Maya hieroglyphs.

During the colonial period, Spain initiated some efforts to study the ruins of Maya cities, such as Palenque. These efforts resulted in reports sent back to Madrid, but did little otherwise to bring the culture of the ancient Maya to the attention of a wider public. That did not happen until the 19th century, when European and American explorers traveled through the region.

Perhaps the best known of these travelers are John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, whose contributions, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán; Incidents of Travel in Yucatán; and Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán were hugely popular. They still are today. After World War I, American museums and universities started extensive research programs, culminating perhaps in the University of Pennsylvania’s Tikal Project of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, for  a variety of reasons, those efforts have been scaled back. It should be noted, however, that archaeologists from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras are now playing a much bigger role than in the early days of investigations.

Cultural subdivisions 

The ancient Maya and their modern descendants live in a wide range of natural environments. They lived in the breathtaking mountains in Guatemala and adjacent Chiapas, where we can still visit them today. They also existed the middle of the rainforest and in the challenging coastal plains and mangrove swamps of the Yucatán peninsula.

Maya culture: a timeline

We know where the Maya lived; next we deal with another question: how far back in time can we identify them as Maya in the archaeological record? Western researchers have superimposed a chronological framework on Maya history using terminology borrowed from European archaeology. Thus we find terms like the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic periods. While this may make sense to us, ancient Maya would have no clue what we are talking about. A division of time into units known as “bak’tuns,” which are almost 400 years long, would be more familiar to them.

Earliest beginnings

Human presence in this part of the world predates 10,000 BC. Evidence of mammoth hunters has been found in the Highlands of Mexico and Guatemala. A rare paleoindian point from Guatemala is on display here in Houston. Surveys in Belize have produced data on human activity dating back to the same period, as well. Recent discoveries in caves off the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, have yielded some of the oldest known human remains in the Americas.

Tentative dates suggest that permanent settlements existed along the Belize coast as long ago as 4,300 BC. The abundance of wildlife and plant life may have been the reason why people could stay permanently, as there is no evidence of agriculture to explain this sedentary (permanent) lifestyle.

Pre-Classic period (c. 1700 BC — 250 AD)

To date, the earliest known pottery from the region comes from the Pacific coast of Guatemala and dates to 1,700 – 1,500 BC. In Belize, the earliest ceramics date to 1,000 – 500 BC. These dates, part of the Preclassic period, mark the appearance of the Maya in the archaeological record.

At this stage, Maya communities are small, probably with a population of only a few hundred people. These are early farmers, who grew corn, squash and beans in their gardens. They also hunted and fished wherever possible.

Because these were small communities, the permanent structures they built were also modest. Still, they did produce house platforms. Their houses looked like a lot of Maya houses still look today: poles stuck into the ground (or platform) and a thatch roof. The walls were covered with mud in a manner that archaeologists call “wattle and daub.” Sometimes, when a house burned down, the mud got baked and the impressions of the sticks that made up the walls were preserved. These broken pieces of baked clay with stick impressions are found frequently in excavations. Modern Maya houses of this nature have two doors, and representations of dwellings in Maya art show them to have the same configuration.

Maya public buildings, such as temples, were also small in scale. Their presence, however, indicates that these early Maya made the time — and had the necessary workforce — to put these types of buildings together. Efforts like these are also interpreted as evidence of the presence of an authority figure. In other words, they had a chief or a headman in the village telling them what to do.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. While small-scale architecture was probably the norm for a large portion of the Pre-classic Maya, we do know of Preclassic Maya cities that were huge.

Examples of such a Pre-classic behemoths are Nakbe and El Mirador in northern Guatemala. Nakbe goes back to at least 1,000 BC. Initially, its architecture (both regular dwellings and public structures) seems to have been small-scaled. However, around 600 – 400 BC, the Maya started building larger structures. This culminated toward the end of the Pre-classic period, when they built four of their largest structures.

The successor to Nakbe was El Mirador. The base of its La Danta pyramid measured six times the footprint of the largest pyramid at Tikal. This city also had raised causeways connecting different temple complexes. The size of this city (as large as Tikal or larger) and the scale of its buildings (larger than Tikal in some cases), at this early date (Middle to Late Preclassic) has forced archaeologists to re-think the trajectory of the development of Maya society.

Initially archaeologists were comfortable with a linear development: the earliest Maya were the “simplest”; the later Maya were more complex. That translated into early buildings that were small and later structures that were much larger. But El Mirador showed that linear sequence to be a false one: at a time when the Maya were supposed to be in their “simple” stage they were already building very large temples. Moreover, El Mirador itself collapsed. It took until the Classic period for cities of this nature to re-appear again.

Maya society went through many ups and downs. These swings between fortune and misfortune are well known in the Classic period Maya.

Classic period (250 – 900 AD)

The Classic period is characterized by the florescence of many Maya cities. The rulers of these cities commissioned stelae, or large carved stone slabs, to glorify their achievements. Thanks to years of meticulous archaeological research (followed by many decades of head scratching and attempts to decipher Maya writing) a general historic framework is now in place. We have a concise view of the history, as reflected in the citizens’ own texts, for more than a dozen cities. References to calendrical cycles in texts, as well as the alignment of buildings to correspond to solstices and equinoxes, testifies to the Maya’s ability in the fields of astronomy and timekeeping.

This is also a time when the Maya interact with other areas of Mesoamerica. Perhaps the best-known exchange is that between Tikal and Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. In 378 AD, a delegation from Teotihuacan arrives at Tikal. It appears that the leader of this delegation had a military background. The texts at Tikal mention how, on the same day that this delegation arrives, the king of Tikal died. We are fortunate enough to have fairly extensive written information on this episode in Maya history.

Maya texts also mention warfare among Maya cities, and the alliances they concluded in an attempt to encircle their mutual enemies. Cities and even small rural communities fortified themselves in an attempt to protect themselves against raids. Some communities even dug large trenches and used the excavated dirt to build enormous ramparts on the inside portion of moats. This phenomenon of warfare becomes more pervasive toward the end of the Classic period; warfare is often invoked as a cause of the so-called Maya collapse.

Postclassic period (900 — 1,546/1,697 AD)

The Maya collapse did not mean the end of Maya culture. Sites in northern Belize experienced rapid growth in the 10th century. It has been suggested that part of that growth was due to the arrival of refugees from the collapsing cities.

During the Postclassic, cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala flourish. Perhaps the most famous Maya city at this time is Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, our understanding of that city and others is still limited.

The Postclassic period is a period of internal change; the Maya are abandoning certain practices, such as their long-held custom of complex calendrical computations. The Postclassic Maya preferred using a simplified version, instead. The Postclassic comes to an end with the arrival of the Spaniards.

Conquest

The first contact between Maya and Spaniards occurred in 1502, when Columbus encountered a sea-going canoe in the Gulf of Honduras. Nine years later, in 1511, shipwrecked Spaniards land on the coast of Yucatán. Two of them survive, while the others perish at the hands of the local Maya. The Spaniards, in search of gold and other riches, had a very hard time conquering the Maya, especially those Maya living in the Yucatán Peninsula. It took them almost 20 years (from 1527 to 1546) to establish nominal control over the peninsula. It was not until 1697 that the last independent Maya surrendered. They lived in northern Guatemala on an island in Lake Petén Itza.

Colonial-period Maya

Our understanding of the colonial-period Maya is mostly text-based rather than based on archaeology. Archival documents associated with legal and religious issues are dispersed across the landscape. Those few Maya who could read and write during this period tended to serve their communities as notaries and assistants to Spanish church officials. It is from their pens that we learn of Maya attitudes and thinking with regard to the new arrivals in their world.

The Maya repeatedly rose up against the Spaniards. They did so in 1542, 1562, 1761 and from 1840 through 1901. These events have been the subject of a good number of books. The Yucatán peninsula, in particular, was the scene of a prolonged, brutal conflict known as the Caste War, which lasted from 1847 to 1901.

The Maya today

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryA modern Maya couple checks voicemail. Photo courtesy Rosalinda Mendez.

While modern Maya continue to have social and economic problems, a small number hold advanced degrees and serve as junior ministers in national governments. Thirty Mayan languages are still spoken. The artistry in weaving still continues. With the advent of mass media, the Maya too are getting plugged into the wider world.

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

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.

Calendar
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.

aztec
 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.