Why The Modern Maya Don’t Think The World Is Ending

If you want to meet Maya people, go to the Yucatan. More specifically, go to the city of Merida. Merida’s population is nearly at a million and 60% of all inhabitants are of Maya ethnicity. Roughly a third of the population of Merida speak Mayan – the Yucatec Maya language. Fighting for space for my body on the crowded sidewalks and space for my car on the congested streets, my time in Merida was spent in close physical proximity to the modern Maya, as comes with the territory when visiting the downtown area of a capital city in Mexico over a weekend.

Although Merida was created atop a Spanish-overtaken and demolished Maya community, the Maya culture today is preserved in Merida through museums, music, dance, art, fashion, markets, cuisine and language, as well as in other areas of modern Merida life. When the conquistadors set out to rule the land now known as Merida, the Maya were forced to learn Spanish and their books were burned. The stones from Maya buildings were used to build Merida – the walls of the cathedral downtown are made from these stones. Old Spanish city gates that were once a part of a massive wall still stand in Merida. The wall was initially erected to protect the city’s center from revolting Maya. The last major revolt was the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901). Today, an outwardly integrated city greets travelers and it is flush with Maya souvenirs and Maya experiences to take home.

%Gallery-173726%The words of Rigoberta Menchu were in my mind when I conversed with the local Maya about the popular Doomsday Prophecies:

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

Before entering into these conversations, I already knew what I later found supporting evidence for in my discussions: modern Maya don’t think the world is ending on December 21. Careful not to speak in a way that would carry offensive implications of mystic misunderstandings, I asked the Maya I met about their own take on December 21 and all the hype. I asked the Maya on the street and in the market, I asked the Maya at restaurants and hotels. The answer was the same for everyone, there was no exception to this.

“We are entering into a new cycle,” they’d tell me. “This is just a new beginning,” they’d say without doubt.

I’m not alone in my findings. In a MINNPOST article, Phyllis Messenger, the president of the Maya Society of Minnestoa, is quoted as saying, “I have not yet run across any indigenous person who believes this is the end of the world.” The article’s author, Catherine Watson, goes on to make a good point when she reiterates the words of archaeologists with, “The Mayans probably didn’t fear the end of one baktun and the start of the next, archaeologists say. More likely, they celebrated it, much as we go all-out for really significant New Year’s Eves, like the ones when a century turns.”

Modern Maya aren’t worried because ancient Maya weren’t worried. The 13th baktun, a 400-year unit, is coming to a close and a new one is beginning. But because it is not a 14th baktun that is beginning but rather the first again (this method of tracking time is cyclical), the ancient Maya inscribed the date in zeroes. The lesson to take home from modern Maya: zeroes in this context represent resetting the clock, not unplugging it.

Make sure to check out the rest of my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” which explores the Yucatan region, Maya culture and more.

December 21, 2012: An Introduction To The End Of The World

A charismatic and talkative man of Maya descent approached me one lively Friday evening just outside of La Plaza Grande in Merida, Mexico. With infectious enthusiasm, he discussed the history of the Maya in the Yucatan and Merida with me; his face gained color and animation as each topic rolled over into a new one. My Spanish isn’t very good, so my husband, who is half Mexican, translated that which I did not catch the first time around.

I had a bowl of Tortilla Soup for dinner that night. As I blew my breath onto each steaming spoonful, my husband recounted for me the story he’d just heard regarding the origin of the word, “Yucatan.” According to the man we’d just spent time with on the street, Hernan Cortes first told this story in a letter to Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor. According to Cortes, when the Spanish first asked natives of the peninsula what the region was called, they responded with “Yucatan.” In the Yucatec Maya language, “Yucatan” translates as “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Nearly 500 years later, the truth is still lost in translation, muddled by time, language, personal beliefs and motives.

%Gallery-173647%With December 21, 2012, only a few days away, the hype surrounding it and its Maya roots has been amplified. Throughout my recent trip to the Yucatan, a stark contrast between the local and foreign opinion of this date was blatantly observable. As Jacob Devaney discusses in an article on the Huffington Post, prophetic fiction is powerful. Our tendency to take written words literally, no matter the gap between written and oral tradition, is also powerful. Our imaginations are worlds of their own, holding both the thread and ability to weave intricately detailed narratives with climaxes and resolutions that are tailored to suit our individual stories. When these stories happen to reflect the facts, they usually do so in varying degrees. The burden of proof for 2012 storytellers is often skirted by those who, to begin with, want to believe. What we have as a result is swampy literature thick with blurred lines between fact and fiction. Predictions for December 21 are abundant. To fully grasp both the intentions and present impact of the Maya, we must first become acquainted with the popular beliefs regarding this date.

The End Of The World

Some believe December 21 will be the day the world ends or the beginning of the end. Believers predict that the date will wreak catastrophe, particularly astronomical catastrophe. The arrival of the next solar maximum, interference at the hand of our galaxy’s center black hole, a collision with an unconfirmed hidden planet, an alignment of the planets, a pole shift and increasing disasters are some of the ways in which believers say the world might dissipate on December 21. Some have developed conspiracy theories on a massive government cover-up operation; an attempt at shielding the masses from the truth of the “end times.” Many who believe that the world will end on December 21 have linked their beliefs to the Maya calendar, claiming that the end of the Long Count calendar coincides with this date. In truth, the calendar does not end on December 21 – it simply moves into its next cycle. As expressed by Joseph L. Flatley on The Verge, this kind of information would normally go unnoticed were it not for our cultural preoccupation with The End. But rather than remain an ‘obscure piece of trivia,’ as Flatley puts it, the calendar’s ending cycle has been at the center of current mainstream and underground conversation.

According to the SETI Institute’s “Doomsday 2012 Fact Sheet,” some opinion polls are suggesting that a tenth of Americans are concerned about whether or not they will survive December 21. Teachers have reported that their students are fearful of the impending date. The mother of Adam Lanza, the young man responsible for the recent massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, has been identified as a “Doomsday Prepper.” The guns used in the shooting belonged to his mother, who had been stockpiling both weaponry and food for what she believed to be the approaching apocalypse. This date has been manipulated, exploited and profited from in most imaginable ways.

Professional scholars and scientists have worked to debunk the rumors and slow the rampant spread of doomsday theories. Maya scholars maintain that dark predictions for December 2012 are not referenced in any classic Maya accounts. Astronomers have disputed apocalypse theories tied to this date, explaining that the theories at hand conflict with basic astronomical observations. But the date holds significance even for those who don’t believe that it will usher in the end times.

A New Beginning

Some New Age beliefs imply that this date marks a period of time during which we will all undergo positive physical or spiritual transformation. Every Mexican I spoke with during my recent trip, including those of Maya descent, believed that this date simply marks a new beginning. December 21, our winter solstice, represents the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter. Of course in this sense, the date will be “a new beginning” just as it is every year – the beginning of a new season. But perhaps the date will represent another kind of new beginning – a new beginning for the modern perception of the Maya civilization. For far too long, the great achievements and fascinating facets of Maya culture have been overshadowed by fear-mongering hoaxes. Perhaps with the coming and passing of December 21, we can continue where we left off on our journey of Maya exploration and understanding.

This is just the first post in a series on what I learned in the Yucatan about December 21, Maya Culture and the general region. Stay tuned for more.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

Upcoming exhibition will debunk Mayan prophecy of the end of the world in 2012


An exhibition coming to Philadelphia will tackle this year´s hottest pseudo-archaeological topic: the Mayan prophecy that the world will end in 2012.

“Maya 2012: Lords of Time” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology will explain the Mayan civilization’s complex interlocking calendar systems through interactive displays and a rich collection of art and artifacts. These calendars developed out of an advanced knowledge of astronomy and an obsession with the cyclical nature of astronomical events such as the solar and lunar years, eclipses, and the movements of the planets.

One of these calendar systems is the so-called Long Count, which starts a new cycle every 1,872,000 days, or approximately 5,125 solar years. The current cycle ends on December 21 or 23, depending on which scholar you believe. Most scholars say the Long Count doesn’t actually end on this date, it merely starts another cycle. The other Mayan calendars keep going too. No Mayan text says the world is supposed to end this year. In fact, some Mayan inscriptions actually mention dates later than 2012. They don’t mention anything about cosmic vibrations, visiting UFOs, or any of the other bullshit theories being bandied about either.

Dr. Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, said in an interview that the ancient Maya felt the end of a cycle was cause for celebration. Anthropologist and Maya specialist Dr. Judith Maxwell did what the New Agers didn’t bother to do and actually asked the Maya what they thought. While the ancient civilization is gone, the Mayan culture is alive and well in Mesoamerica and Mayan shamans, called daykeepers, told Maxwell that the end is not coming.

Apparently the exhibition organizers agree there’s nothing to fear. The exhibition runs from May 5, 2012 to January 13, 2013.

So the world isn’t going to end in 2012.

This ranks top on my list of “unsurprising news of the week.” I’m 42, and I have a hard time remembering a year that the world wasn’t supposed to end. Some hack writer or religious conman is always trying to scare us into thinking the world is going to end. The sad thing is, people embrace this nonsense. The world is not ending this year. You still have to deal with the consequences of your actions and you still have to shoulder your responsibilities. Chances are you will have to do that for many years to come. Chances are you will grow old and live through many more of life’s ups and downs.

That’s not a bad thing.

Adventure Vacation Guide 2012: Belize

Belize is the only country in Central America with English as the official language. The small country, measuring 180 miles long and 68 miles wide, is a popular vacation destination for tourists whose native language is English. But Belize is good for much more than just lounging in white sand while watching the shimmering teal waves roll in and out while drinks, ordered in English, are replenished. Behind the luxurious resorts and relaxing vacation packages, Belize is an adventure destination.

With the lowest population density in Central America and, simultaneously, the highest growth rate in the region, 2012 is the year to visit Belize–it’s still spacious and remote in most places, but it doesn’t appear as though this quality will serve Belize permanently. People everywhere are beginning to now catch onto what natives have always known–Belize is not only gorgeous, rich in history, and filled with Mayan cultural treasures, but the small country packs in a big punch with adventure and thrill-seekers. Inexpensive and lush, the untainted waters and landscapes await you.Explore Belizean caves littered with Mayan ruins. The ATM Cave, near the city of San Ignacio, boasts still-in-tact skeletons and pieces of once-blood-holding pottery from Mayan sacrifices; these were offerings to the gods during times of desperate drought. But there’s a catch to seeing something as rare as these remnants–you have to get to them first. Getting through ATM cave is no easy feat. You must first hike through thick rainforest terrain for an hour before facing the cave’s entrance, which is a waterway. The only way in, and out, is to swim through the chilly water in the pitch-black, damp cave with your headlamp serving as your only guiding light. After you’ve made it in and out of the water portions of the cave, relatively challenging climbs and tight squeezes await you as you journey through this spooky cavern.

Zip-line through the forests surrounding this cave and many others while you’re inland. Stop to observe wild jaguars if you can while in the Jaguar Paw area. While at Jaguar Paw, take the opportunity to go for a tubing trip through a cave. Hike through thick and challenging terrain and cool off via waterfall rappelling. Scuba dive down into the famous-for-a-reason Great Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole that measures 984 feet across and 407 feet deep. Widely regarded as one of the best diving spots in the world, the aerial shots of this gaping Caribbean hole will make your heart skip a beat (just Google it). If diving is too much of a commitment for you, spend your time a bit more leisurely and follow a shining school of fish while snorkeling. Weave around the shoreline and throughout the inland rivers by kayak or go kayak sailing into the rising sun. Spend your time doing daily yoga at one of the country’s yoga retreats or yoga-friendly resorts, fully immersed in a tranquil environment, or test your boundaries with a sky diving, parasailing, base-jumping, or bungee jumping excursion.

Whether your on a shoestring budget or looking to spend your hard-earned money on all of the finest adventures Belize has to offer, you’ll find a sweat-inducing, adrenaline-spiking experience in Belize that suits your wallet and lifestyle. With a landscape like the Belize landscape, adventure waits outside your door with free admission to the mountains and beaches. And with organized companies like the ones you can find in Belize with minimal research, sky’s the limit for your guided adventure in this small, but incredibly rich, Caribbean country.

[flickr image via jayhem]

Ancient Mayan city discovered in Guatemala

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient Mayan city in Guatemala Archaeologists have used modern technology to uncover an ancient Mayan city buried deep in the jungles of Guatemala. More than two millennia ago, the city was home to 2000 people, but in the centuries since it was abandoned, it has been reclaimed by the jungle, and now sits beneath several feet of dirt and plant life. It is for that reason that it has remained undiscovered for so long.

The city, known as Holtun, was completely unknown to archaeologists until the 1990’s. It was at that time that they trailed treasure hunters and looters to the region for the first time. But because of the thick jungle growth, they didn’t even recognize that a city once existed at the site, although the locals were aware that something large was hidden there.

Recently, researchers used a combination of satellite imagery, GPS coordinates, and 3D mapping software to explore the area, and what they discovered was startling. The decidedly 21st century technology was able to help them identify more than 100 buildings, including several homes, a sports arena, an astronomical observatory, and a pyramid that is more than seven stories in height. The structures are believed to date back to between 600 and 300 BC.

For now, the site remains shrouded in mystery and covered by the dense Guatemalan rainforest. But this summer, the archaeology team that discovered Holtun hopes to begin the painstakingly slow excavation process that will roll back centuries of jungle growth that have consumed the city. When they do, they will have the opportunity to get a glimpse of what life was like in Mayan city more than 2000 years ago.

Stories like these never cease to fascinate me. I’m always amazed that we can still find such great archaeological discoveries in this day and age. It truly makes you wonder what else is out there, hidden in plain sight, just waiting for us to stumble across it.

[Photo courtesy Michael G. Callaghan]