The Long Count calendar was created by the Mayans so that history could be chronicled and future events could be planned - you know, not too dissimilar to the calendar on your iPhone.
This long-period calendar, that has a cycle of 5,126 years, is a departure from the other calendars the Mayans used at the time. Some calendars lasted less than a year (such as the "Tzolk'in" - that lasted 260 days), others lasted decades (such as the "Calendar Round" - charting the approximate time span of a generation - approximately 52 years). Then, using remarkable ingenuity, the Mayans created the Long Count calendar that had a numerical foundation - almost like an ancient binary code.
"It's a Marketing Fallacy."
Although the exact end-date of this Long Count cycle has recently been thrown into doubt, one thing most Maya experts and doomsday theorists agree on is that the calendar "ends" next year. The calendar consists of 13 "Baktuns" - each approximately 394-years long - and we are coming to the end of the 13th Baktun.
One thing they don't agree on, however, is what this actually means.
Doomsayers will try to convince you that the "end" of the Long Count 13th Baktun is a Mayan prophesy of the "End of the World." Because, like any good snake oil salesman, you need to frighten the crap out of your audience before selling them a book on the subject.
But, according to someone who actually knows a thing or two about the Maya culture, the Mayans never made any such prophesy: "We have to be clear about this. There is no prophecy for 2012," said Erik Velasquez, an etchings specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). "It's a marketing fallacy."
The National Institute of Anthropological History in Mexico, no doubt getting fed-up of their inboxes getting filled with panicked emails about fake doomsday theories, issued a statement too: "The West's messianic thinking has distorted the world view of ancient civilizations like the Mayans."
According to the Institute, of the 15,000 glyphic texts found in the ancient ruins of the Mayan empire, only two mention 2012. You'd think that the "End of the World" would hold more significance, wouldn't you? Events after 2012 are also mentioned, so this "End of the World" isn't as definite as the doomsayers make out.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of... Doomsday?
For some reason, modern culture embraces ancient civilizations as having magical powers - they could somehow predict the future and had conversations with aliens (really). And for some who think the Indiana Jones movies are accurate portrayals of historic events, this probably isn't so surprising.
Experts in Maya culture have a far better perspective as to what the end of the 13th Baktun really means to the descendants of the ancient Maya.
"Because Bolon Yokte was already present at the day of creation ... it just seemed natural for the Mayan that Bolon Yokte will again be present," said Sven Gronemeyer, a researcher of Mayan codes from La Trobe University in Australia.
Bolon Yokte is the Mayan god associated with war and creation; the reappearance of this god is therefore more of a transition from one era to the next, according to Gronemeyer. Indeed, many will be marking the end of the Mayan calendar with celebrations of spiritual "rebirth."
Mayan descendants have many celebrations planned; the countries located where the Maya once thrived will be excited about the increase in tourism revenue. Contrary to what those dodgy websites are telling you, it won't be a scary time at all (in Central America, at least).
Really, There's No Doomsday in 2012
As our calendar transitions from 2011 to 2012, we can expect to see more doomsday theories surface, each convincingly portraying the weird and wonderful ways in which the world will be blow-torched in the Fall of 2012.
So long as there is money to be made from people's fear, we'll keep seeing the bookshelves stacked with a disproportionate amount of doom and Google ads linking to websites with doomsayers' warped versions of reality.
But all these theories have a common theme: Whether the purveyor of theorized doom is a killer solar flare, galactic alignment or a brilliantly-timed Planet X (or Nibiru), they are all complete bunk. There is no evidence of 2012 being anything special - next year will have its fair share of war, death, destruction, calamities and financial meltdowns, but the Maya - or any other ancient civilization for that matter - didn't predict it.
Image: An indigenous Mayan participates in an ancient ceremonial game called "juego de pelota" (ball game) during a ceremony by Guatemalan Officials to welcome the upcoming 13th Baktun, an end to the ancient Mayan calendar on December 2012. Mayan Elders disregard some western views that this date is associated with the end of the world. But Guatemala hopes to economize on the forecast boom in tourism for the upcoming year. Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Corbis