According to all the ridiculous hype surrounding Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayans "predicted" the end of the world with one of their calendars. On this date, doomsayers assert that Earth will be ravaged by a smorgasbord of cataclysmic astronomical events - everything from a Planet X flyby to a "killer" solar flare to a geomagnetic reversal, ensuring we have a very, very bad day. As we all know by now, these theories of doom are bunkum.
And now, according to a recent study by an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara, this fundamental "end date" may also be inaccurate. It could be at least 60 days out of whack.
Before we continue, it's worth emphasizing that this mesoamerican calendar (as used by several cultures - including the Maya - in Central and South America before European colonization) does not predict an apocalypse. It never did, despite what the movie "2012″ told us.
The Mayan civilization existed from 250-900 A.D. in the current geographical location of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and some of Honduras. Archaeologists studying this fascinating culture have been able to decipher their many calendars, but their longest period calendar - the "Long Count" - is what set alarm bells off in the fertile minds of a few conspiracy theorists, doomsayers and guys looking to make a fast buck.
So, where's the problem?
The Long Count was used by the Maya to document past and future events. Their other calendars were simply too short to document any date beyond 52 years. The 52-year calendar - known as the "Calendar Round" - was used as it spans a generation, or the approximate lifetime of an individual.
Using the Calendar Round meant that events in a person's life could be chronicled over 52 years - or 52 "Haab's," spanning 18,980 unique days. But what if the Maya wanted to keep note of a historical event that occurred more than 52 years ago? Or perhaps mark a date more than 52 years into the future?
Using remarkable ingenuity, the Maya created the "Long Count" calendar, a departure from the shorter calendars. The Long Count is a numerically predictable calendar, not based on archaic measures of time.
Now, purely as a consequence of the Long Count's numerical value, many Mayan scholars agree that the calendar will "run out" after 5,126 years (or, at least, it's first cycle does). The Mayans set this calendar to begin in the year 3114 B.C. (according to our modern Gregorian calendar). If the Long Count began in 3114 B.C. and it's calculated to continue for 5126 years, the "end date" will be - you guessed it - 2012 A.D. Further refinement sets the date to Dec. 21, the day of the winter solstice for the Northern Hemisphere.
A huge issue when studying ancient calendars comes when trying to correlate their time frames with our modern (Gregorian) calendar. After all, for archaeologists to work out when a big event is documented in the Mayan calendar (such as a war, famine or religious celebration), it needs to be translated into "our" years, months and days.
As the Gregorian calendar began 2010 years ago, we have a standard time line for over two millennia of historical events. But to understand the events documented by the fallen culture, Mayan scholars needed to find significant events common in both the Gregorian and Long Count calendars so they can "correlate."
To do this, most Mayan scholars use a well-respected correlation factor called the "GMT constant." GMT stands for the initials of the last names of the archaeologists who calculated the constant: Joseph Goodman, Juan Martinez-Hernandez and J. Eric S. Thompson.
But Gerardo Aldana of UC Santa Barbara is now questioning the validity of this correlation factor due to a possible misidentification of ancient astronomical events in a new book called "Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World."
The Maya were highly skilled astronomers who kept meticulous records of the night sky. They documented the phases of the moon, recorded eclipses and even tracked the movement of Venus. In fact, the Venus cycle was an important calendar for the Maya. Their records enabled them to predict future astronomical cycles with great accuracy.
Although GMT uses several sources of astronomical, archaeological and historical evidence to correlate the Long Count with our modern calendar, Aldana has cast doubt on the accuracy of some of the astronomical evidence interpreted from ancient Mayan artifacts and colonial texts.
One of the key events described by Aldana is a battle date as set by the ruler of Dos Pilas (a Maya site in the current geographical location of Guatemala). Ruler Balaj Chan K'awiil chose this date by the appearance of Chak Ek'. According to Johan Normark, researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University, Chak Ek' "used to be believed to be Venus but in another study Aldana believes it is a ."
If this is the case, there's a correlation mismatch. If an event is assumed to be correlated with the rising of Venus (a predictable, cyclical occurrence), but it's actually correlated with a random event such as a meteorite, then we have a problem.
Add this to a mismatch of solar calendar dates between Mayan sites and the end date of Dec. 21, 2012 could be at least 60 days out.
Aldana presents several reasons why the GMT constant may not be reliable, and he's not the first to do so, but he does admit that it is widely accepted by the majority of researchers. A lot more work (such as supportive radiocarbon dating) therefore needs to be done before his findings can be corroborated.
This is a fascinating area of work, but it is overshadowed by the inane ramblings of doomsday advocates who have their sights set on the world ending on Dec. 21, 2012. Alas, I doubt that even if this infamous Mayan calendar end date was proven to be inaccurate, doomsayers will ignore this fact.
After all, proving that the world isn't going to end is bad for business if you have a doomsday book to sell.
Sources: UC Santa Barbara, Archaeological Haecceities (Johan Normark's blog)
Image (top): Colored lights illuminate the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in southern Mexico, Saturday, July 7, 2007, after Chichen Itza was selected as one of the new seven wonders of the world. (AP Photo/Israel Leal)