The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
First let’s dispense with the hype.
In spite of what is reported in some of the hyped up pseudo documentaries on the subject, not to mention the zany Websites about it, the world is not going to end on Dec. 12, 2012 — or Dec. 21, 2012 for that matter, the actual date of the winter solstice, the day each year when at noon the sun is at its lowest altitude above the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere. In other words, the shortest day of the year for those of us in the United States.
Since the Mayans in Central America were obsessed with astrological cycles, it is also the end of a major cycle on the Mayan calendar, a day when the Earth and the sun line up with the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Not sure where the 12-12-12 conspiracies come from, except that it is the 12th day on the 12th month in the 12th year of the new millennium. There are no real theories about the world ending on that date, although a lot of couples seem intent on getting married on that day. For numbers watchers, it is the last triple date sequence on the calendar we’ll see in our lifetimes. It has nothing to do with the mysterious Mayan calendar, but that does not seem to dissuade some conspiracy nuts — or programmers intent on maximizing their Web traffic — from misleading the public on the question.
There are a number of conspiracy theories about this date and the alleged “end of the world,” not just from Mayan culture. Many religious practitioners perpetuate myths about such things, causing all kinds of trouble for scientists and government agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. So much so that NASA scientists felt compelled to put up an entire section on its Website with quotes from all kinds of experts to counter the false hype.
Perhaps one of the most cited threats is that the planets will be aligned in such a way as to cause catastrophic events on Earth. According to NASA, however, “There are no planetary alignments in the next few decades, and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible. Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy, but that is an annual event of no consequence.”
How do NASA scientists feel about claims of the world ending in 2012?
“For any claims of disaster or dramatic changes in 2012, where is the science? Where is the evidence? There is none,” according to NASA, “and for all the fictional assertions, whether they are made in books, movies, documentaries or over the Internet, we cannot change that simple fact. There is no credible evidence for any of the assertions made in support of unusual events taking place in December 2012.”
Then, guess what? The Mayan calendar does not even end on any date in December 2012. It’s just the end of one long cycle in human history and the beginning of another.
When so much confusion abounds, even among scientists and science journalists, the public has good reason to be skeptical.
What are the sources of these myths and how did they come to take such hold on human imagination?
According to a few archaeologists who have studied this issue, it wasn’t the Mayans who linked the end of the 13th b’ak’tun with the end of the world. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, it was Judeo-Christians when they set out to decipher Mayan writings.
Surprise, surprise, surprise. The Christians did it.
“Their preconceived notions of apocalypse and the end of the world led them to link Mayan calendar cycles with doomsday,” according to Stephanie Pappas, a senior writer for LiveScience.com.
She quotes John Hoopes, a scholar of Maya history at the University of Kansas, referring to missionaries just entering the New World and coming into contact with native people.
“A lot of the end-of-the-world mythologies are the result of Christian eschatology (theology science, a field which readers should have every right to be skeptical of) introduced by Franciscan missionaries,” Hoopes says.
While so-called “Maya scholars” disagree on exactly how the Maya people would have interpreted the end of their calendar cycle, many would have seen not the end but a “new beginning.”
This version of the theory tends to appeal to New Age followers, who somehow think the date will mark the beginning of a speeded up period in human thinking and evolution. Too bad they are wrong too.
We wish it could be true, but evolution does not work that way. It takes millions of years for species to evolve, and while events are certainly accelerated in our lifetimes, it may not be enough to save us from religious ignorance, which feeds corporate greed and political misinformation.
After reading a lot about this stuff myself, and watching many of the documentaries, let me suggest a simple theory of my own.
While it is fascinating that the Mayans, who lived in a primitive world in a primitive time, figured out some things about mathematics and astrology (as did the Chinese and the Egyptians), in many ways what we now know about them shows that they were in other ways an incredibly ignorant, violent people.
They played a sport that resembled soccer or football. In one documentary, the writer-producer and his chosen “expert” claim that spectators in the alleged stadium found in what is now Guatemala, lines up where the spectators can view the astrological alignment on the winter solstice when they held their ancient equivalent of the Super Bowl.
But here’s the rub that must be viewed as part of the reason for the ultimate failure of the Mayan empire and culture. The winning team decapitated the losing team after the game. Cutting off the heads of your opponent is not exactly the way to develop a civilized society with a chance to survive.
In addition, according to another documentary, the Mayans practiced human sacrifices to a non-existent sun god — and dumped the dead bodies in a freshwater lake that just happened to be about their only source of fresh drinking water in that particular part of the rain forest.
Presumably we are much smarter than that these days, although are we? (More on this point in a minute).
The Mayan society was also structured much like a religious monarchy, with kings who allegedly derived their power from the gods. Much of the archeological research shows this, and it also shows that when the masses became disillusioned with their “god-kings,” they revolted. That is often cited as one of the reasons for the collapse of Mayan empires and civilization, although you have to wade deep into the research and the films to parse out this point amongst all the hype.
Could there be a lesson for today from all of this? I think so, which is why I’m spending so much time researching and writing about it today.
While scholars say the story is “a distraction from more important science concerns, such as global warming and loss of biological diversity,” perhaps we could use this month as a “teachable moment” to educate more people on the problems we face from the continuing issues of water and air pollution, and climate change due to human induced global warming — and the problem of electing religious nuts to run the government.
I just so happens that the international talks on global warming just broke up in Doha without much agreement to do anything.
Of all the coverage on that, we sort of like the reaction from Greenpeace.
“Today we ask the politicians in Doha: Which planet are you on? Clearly not the planet where people are dying from storms, floods and droughts. Nor the planet where renewable energy is growing rapidly and increasing constraints are being placed on the use of dirty fuels such as coal. The talks in Doha were always going to be a modest affair, but they failed to live up to even the historically low expectations.”
Other related reading for today.
The New York Times has an editorial out Sunday that talks about the cracks in this nation’s foundation, which if heeded, would not only begin to solve some of our worst environmental problems but the jobs problem as well.
Of course the Republicans in Congress will continue to totally ignore it. Some of them seem to think bringing on the end of the world is a good thing. Like the preachers who they listened to as children, they actually want to be alive to see the end of the world, and they actually believe this guy named Jesus will return from the sky and save them from the worst of it. That strikes us as about as ridiculous as the Mayans believing their god-kings would make them all rich if they just killed their neighbors and dumped their bodies into the drinking water. It is also as surely false as the belief among Muslim suicide bombers that they will be rewarded in heaven with vestal virgins. Stupid is as stupid does.
I also sort of like another New York Times piece panning the National Geographic Channel for its misleading and sensational treatment of the Mayan end of the world myth.
Although these days, I find myself grating at the “tone” of what passes for snark in the New York Times. No wonder Southerners hate the paper and would never pay for it or their Website.
They should at least give credit to National Geographic Magazine itself for some excellent work on the subject, especially this piece: The Maya: Glory and Ruin.
A few relevant excerpts.
Over the centuries, as the Maya learned to prosper in the rain forest, the settlements grew into city-states, and the culture became ever more refined. The Maya built elegant multiroom palaces with vaulted ceilings; their temples rose hundreds of feet toward the heavens. Ceramics, murals, and sculpture displayed their distinctive artistic style, intricate and colorful. Though they used neither the wheel nor metal tools, they developed a complete hieroglyphic writing system and grasped the concept of zero, adopting it for everyday calculations. They also had a 365-day year and were sophisticated enough to make leap-year-like corrections. They regularly observed the stars, predicted solar eclipses, and angled their ceremonial buildings so that they faced sunrise or sunset at particular times of year.
Scholars have looked instead at combinations of afflictions in different parts of the Maya world, including overpopulation, environmental damage, famine, and drought. “You come away feeling that anything that can go wrong did,” says Rice.
They have also focused on the one thing that appears to have happened everywhere during the prolonged decline: As resources grew scarce, the kuhul ajaw lost their divine luster, and, with it, the confidence of their subjects, both noble and commoner. Instability and desperation in turn fueled more destructive wars. What had been ritualized contests fought for glory or captives turned into spasms of savagery like the one that obliterated Cancuén. Says Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum: “The system broke down and ran out of control.”
For more than a millennium, the Maya had entrusted their religious and temporal well-being to their god-kings.
…across much of the Maya region the lake-bed sediments also show ancient layers of eroded soil, testimony to deforestation and overuse of the land.
…elite polygamy and intermarriage among royal families swelled the ruling class.
Cities no longer rebuilt and rebounded. They simply ceased to exist.
A few other links.
One of the experts used in one of the History Channel documentaries wrote this scathing report on what happened.
He recommends this documentary, although I’m skeptical.
If you really want to have fun, there’s always the Mayan end of the world app for Macs in iTunes.
I will say this in closing. Even though the world is not going to end, some crazy people might try to do some crazy things on those dates, so it would still be a good idea to head for the woods and high ground. We are planning an extended camping trip : )
© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.