2012: Did the Maya Predict an Apocalypse?

For the last 2 years, the Astronomy Department of the Houston Museum of Natural Science has searched and researched Maya ruins and writings for connections between the Mayan calendar and the ability of Maya astronomers to predict future events.

To record the passage of time, the Maya developed a 260-day ritual cycle, made up of thirteen numbers and twenty names. With this continuous running cycle, they could predict future events like the harvesting of crops and the birth of children. The Maya kept a second 365-day solar calendar of 18 months, each lasting 20 days, plus 5 extra days to complete the year. This calendar determined the growing season and the annual return of the rains. For longer time periods the Maya used a 5-number Long Count. On December 21st, 2012, for instance, this Long Count has a new beginning as the date changes from 12.19.19.17.19 to 13.0.0.0.0. This is similar to the change from 1999 to 2000 in our modern calendar and is the cause of much 2012 speculation.

Great Temples
The homeland of the Maya stretches from southern Mexico to northern Central America. Our new planetarium show, 2012: Mayan Prophecies (Now Showing!), explores the great Maya cities of Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque. For survival, the Maya created these great urban centers to store rainwater through the dry season and built observatories to determine when the annual rains would begin.

The Castillo pyramid in Chichen Itza is a temple to the feathered serpent god Kukulcan. Each of its 4 staircases has 91 steps for 364 steps in all with a top step into the temple – one step for each day of the year.  According to legend, Kukulcan returns to his pyramid on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, descending the staircase in an undulating shadow.

In the nearby Caracol observatory, astronomers watched Kukulcan, who appeared in the heavens as the planet Venus. Through motions of the brilliant Venus, they determined the will of Kukulcan and the time for human sacrifices to honor this sky god and give thanks for the rains he would soon send.

Tikal
photo courtesy of Raymond Ostertag

Tikal
The Maya carved the great city of Tikal out of the rain forest in the lowlands of modern Guatemala. In this city of up to 100,000, all water came from the sky. Tikal’s rulers cleared the rain forest, channeled the water in swamps to grow crops, and built cisterns and catch basins to store water during the rainy season. Tikal’s power depended on storing enough water to last until the rains returned each spring.

Five giant pyramids helped astronomers predict when the rainy season would begin. On December 21, for instance, astronomers on Temple 4 could watch the sun rise farthest to the south, over the Pyramid of the Jaguar Priest. From this date forward, they knew that the sun would rise a little more to the north each day. At the vernal equinox, the sun would always rise over Temple 1, an event that must happen before the rains could begin.

Palenque
In the foothills of Mexico’s southern mountains, lies the Maya city of Palenque. Blessed with abundant rain and flowing rivers, the artisans of Palenque had time to create some of the most elaborate and exquisite Mayan art and the most delicate of buildings. Here inscriptions describe the beginning of the Maya long count cycle and chronicle events far into the future, but no mention of 2012.

There has been a subtle change in the sky in the 1,300 years since the time of the classic Maya. Due to the wobble of Earth’s spin axis, different stars rise with the sun in each season.

For instance, at the time of the Maya, the glowing Milky Way band was above the sun at sunrise on the winter solstice.  Now in December, the sun reaches its lowest point at noon in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way, near the direction of the galaxy’s center.

Does this mean that galactic forces are now aligned? Did the Maya predict this alignment? We have no data to indicate that the Maya recognized the 26,000-year cycle that caused this alignment. There is no documented connection between the Earth-centered Maya cosmos and our modern universe.

Classic Maya civilization did experience a great apocalypse, but it occurred long before the Spanish Conquest.

For over a millennium, the major cities of the Maya have stood abandoned – deserted by their citizens, conquered by weather and reclaimed by the rainforest. At their culture’s height, many of the Maya faced the worst drought in thousands of years. It devastated a civilization that had cut down the rainforest to grow crops and destroyed urban centers that could not store enough water for their people. In less than a hundred years, over a hundred thousand Maya disappeared, leaving their parched cities and their withered fields, rejecting the divine right and Earthly power of their kings. By the thousands they returned to the rainforest and mountains to a sustainable population and way of life.

As we sense the fragility of our own culture today, we may discover a warning for 2012 in the ruins of these great Maya cities — silent sentinels, witnesses of the apocalypse of the Maya.

Explore pyramids towering above the rainforest, designed as observatories to follow the sun. Experience the apocalypse of the Maya and discover how our fate in 2012 may be foretold in our new planetarium show 2012: Mayan Prophecies. Check out the extended preview below!

Can’t see the video? 2012: Mayan Prophecies from HMNS on Vimeo.

Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   

 

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do - we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced - making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 

 

Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa