One of the more profoundly silly bits of pop culture nonsense served up in the recent past, may be the world coming to an end on 12/21/12, according to the Mayan calendar. The calendar itself isn’t silly, it’s actually a very sophisticated mathematical construct, but the end of the world part certainly was.
According to linguist, anthropologist and Mayanist scholar Floyd Glenn Lounsbury and his “Lounsbury Correlation”, the Mayan Calendar dates back 5,131 years to August 13, 3114 BC. This day seems as good as any, though I’m sure there can be little certainty about a date that far in the past.
The Mayans were skilled mathematicians, and it shows in their calendar. They were the first to recognize the concept of zero, and worked extensively in a base 20 number system.
The Mayans used three separate calendars, each period represented by its own glyph. The Long Count was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle, about 7,885 solar years. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and one 5-day Uayeb, a nameless period rounding out the 365-day year. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263 day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though a Haab and Tzolkin date may be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.
National Geographic explains that 12/21/12 brings to a close not the end of time, but the end of the 12th Bak’tun, an almost 400-year period in the Mayan Long Count calendar. The world doesn’t end, according to this explanation, it “rolls over” to the year zero and starts over, kind of like old cars used to do, when the odometer reached 100,000 miles.
It doesn’t really roll over to “zero”, either. The base 20 numerical system means that 12/22/12 begins the next 400 year (actually 394.3 years) period to begin the 13th Bak’tun. It will reset to zero at the end of the 20th Bak’tun, about 3,000 years from now. Please let me know how that turns out.
The Mayan calendar system became extinct in most areas after the Spanish conquests of the 16th century, though it continues in use in many modern communities in highland Guatemala and in Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.
The table of Long Count units below illustrates the Mayan units of measurement. A day is a K’in, there are 20 K’ins in a Winal, and so on. Today’s date, according to the Mayan calendar, is Long Count: 184.108.40.206.14, Calendar Round: 8 Ix 12 Yaxk’in, Year Bearer: 6 Ik’, Lord of Night: G2, 13 Bak’tun, 0 K’atun, 4 Tun, 12 Winal, 14 K’in, 8 Ix, G2, 12 Yaxk’in. Got it? Me neither.