2012 Mayan calendar doomsday prophecy debunked by Houston Museum of Natural Science

By now, it is pretty much a given that anyone reading this will have heard that the ancient Mayan people left a prophecy about the world coming to an end on Dec. 21, 2012. To help get the message out that the sun will, indeed, rise on Dec. 22, 2012, and life will continue on as it has, this weekend the Houston Museum of Natural Science is opening a new exhibit that is meant to debunk this myth.

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The exhibit contains murals from Yale University that were painstakingly recreated, showing monuments from the ancient Mayan ruins of Bonampak. Records of special events are shown in stone carvings and rubbings, pyramid replicas reveal how astronomers kept track of the seasons, and the details of the Mayan calendars are shown in videos.

"The calendar is there, and it will continue, so nobody ought to be afraid of what Dec. 21 will bring because there will be a Dec. 22 and, yes, there will be a Christmas," said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of the Maya 2012 Prophecy Becomes History exhibit.

Many doomsday scenarios have been attached to this date: a 'galactic alignment' between the Earth, Sun and the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy, or the Sun passing through the 'centre of the galaxy' or the 'galactic plane' or the 'galactic equator,' or the collision or interaction with a rogue planet named 'Planet X' or 'Nibiru,' or collision with an asteroid or comet, or due to a hitherto unknown and unseen star called 'Nemesis' that will sweep through the inner solar system. Any or all of these events will apparently bring ruin to the planet.

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The date of these apocalyptic events was taken from Mayan mythology and their use of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar.

This long-count calendar is one of three calendars used by the Mayans — each with a different length and purpose — and it is quite different from the western Gregorian calendar. It uses five different units of time in writing dates, rather than the three we use, which are k'in, winal, tun, k'atun, and b'ak'tun. There are 20 k'in in a winal, 18 winal in a tun, 20 tun in a k'atun and 20 k'atun in a b'ak'tun. The other two are calendars are the 260-day tzolk'in round calendar and the 365-day Haab' year calendar.

Mayan long-count values are written right to left, from smallest unit to largest unit, as b'ak'tun-k'atun-tun-winal-k'in. Values for kzolk'in and Haab' calendars are written after the long-count value to form a complete date. The equivalent of today's date, Oct. 28, 2012, would be 12.19.19.15.6 2 Cimi 9 Zac — 12 b'ak'tun, 19 k'atun, 19 tun, 15 winal and 6 k'in, plus the kzolk'in and Haab' dates. About the closest equivalent we could use from our calendar would be century-decade-year-month-day, which we could write as 20.1.2.10.27 — 20 centuries, 1 decade, 2 years, 10 months and 27 days.

The purpose of the long-count calendar was to count the number of days since the Mayan's mythical date of creation. According to their mythology, the gods suffered failures in their first three attempts to create a world populated with people to pay them homage, and they finally created the current 'fourth world' with humans in it. All records of the start date of the fourth world have the long-count written as 13.0.0.0.0, rather than 0.0.0.0.0, to denote completing the 13th b'ak'tun. Subsequent long-count dates were numbered 0.0.0.0.1, 0.0.0.0.2 and so on, and the long-count of the day before — the last day of the third world — would have been 12.19.19.17.19.

This appears to be the origin of Dec. 21 being a prophesied Mayan apocalypse.

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By their mythology, the Mayan's previous world ended after 13 b'ak'tun, so some have assumed that this fourth world will do the same, and since the next 12.19.19.17.19 of the Mayan calendar happens on Dec. 20, 2012, that must mean that a fifth world will begin on Dec. 21, 2012.

Putting aside all the other reasons why these doomsday prophecies should be dismissed, I'm just going to focus on the calendar itself.

Nowhere is it written in Mayan texts or records that all worlds last for only 13 b'ak'tun. Only the third world supposedly did. In fact, recent findings have shown that the Mayans plotted astronomical tables forward for 17 b'ak'tun, which seems to be an awful waste of their time and effort if they thought that this world would end after just 13 b'ak'tun.

Also, the long-count calendar has units higher than b'ak'tunpictun, kalabtun, k'inchiltun, and alautun are just the next four, with each equal to 20 of the previous unit. For reference, one alautun is equal to over 63 million years!

Even longer dates have been found in some Mayan carvings.

Thus, just from their own records of dates, it's clear that the Mayans fully expected for this fourth world to continue indefinitely and that they would continue counting upward with their calendar indefinitely.

It seems to be part of the human psyche that when a calendar milestone approaches, our thoughts turn to the possibility of the cycle ending. We saw it with our own calendar in 1999, when there were fears of everything ending after 11:59:59 Dec. 31.

However, life went on then, and this milestone will be no different.

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