What Will Not Happen in 2012

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers await 2012 with trepidation. There will be ill-founded claims, bad Hollywood movies (one now in production), silly reportage, and much distortion of what 2012 meant for the ancient Maya. Every imaginable anxiety will apply to this key event in the Maya calendar. If we are candid, too, there will be renewed interest in our field, which scholars can shape to positive result…if the public ever bothers to listen. A rich ethnography of misunderstanding awaits those who wish to peruse the web.

Such an ethnography is not my purpose here. Rather, I present a mea culpa and a rectification. In 1996, Stuart and I discussed part of the text on Tortuguero Monument 6, suggesting that, on 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in, Julian Dec. 10, AD 2012, a god will “descend,” ye-ma or yemal, in what was held to be a nearly unique example of Classic-era prophecy. Why unique? …because when the Classic texts refer to the future, they typically encompass “impersonal temporal events that are safely predictable” (Houston and Stuart 1996:301, fn. 7). Stuart and I left a small escape chute, admitting that “there are some technical problems with this translation” (ibid.).

The relevant, final portions of Monument 6 record a Distance Number that counts from the principal event in the inscription (Fig. 1). The earlier event is the dedication (EL?-le-NAAH-ji-ja) of the building that doubtless housed this T-shaped panel (mentioned at E6-F6, []). The future events are described as tzuhtzjoom u 13 pih 4 Ajaw 3 Uniiw utoom, all “impersonal” and “safely predictable” insofar as they are straightforward references to the conclusion of a major cycle at a particular Calendar Round. What follows is the discourse marker ‘i-, an eroded glyph, and ye-? 9 YOOK-TE’ ta … By one reading of the text, whatever takes place after the ‘i– elaborates and extends this future sequence of events.

Or that is what we wrote in 1996. It happens that two others texts encapsulate a very similar pattern of dates. One comes from Naranjo, Guatemala, and is now in the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City (Fig. 2, Graham 1978:103). The second, recently found at La Corona, Guatemala, by Marcello Canuto of Yale, has been drawn in pencil by David Stuart. (Avid bibliophiles will discover that a recent coffee-table book published in Guatemala has full photographs of the La Corona texts as well.)

The final portion of the Naranjo text ends by counting forward to a future date, 7 Ajaw 18 Zip [Julian March 11, AD 830], with a rare future of a mediopassive verb, subfixed, apparently, by –[yi]mo. Thus, the inscription vaults into the future, many decades after the final contemporary date on the monument, and then, at the end, shifts back to that earlier date, (9.) 5 Ajaw 3 Ch’en [Julian Aug. 22, AD 593]. This is when the current ruler scattered incense, presumably at the dedication of the text and, according to Stela 38, the consecration of two other stones as well, probably Stelae 38 and 39, both found near Structure D-1 at Naranjo. The text accordingly situates itself in present time, leaps to a future presented in highly schematic terms, and then reverts to the present.

The final passages of the La Corona panel do much the same (Fig. 3). The base date is the dedication of the panels themselves, their last truly contemporary date: 4 K’an 7 Mak, Julian Oct. 24, AD 677. Almost in yo-yo effect, the inscription lurches forward to (Julian May 7, AD 682), then, from the 4 K’an base date, forward again to (Julian April 11, AD 687), and, in like manner, forward yet again from that base date to (Julian March 15, AD 692), one of the most vivid times for the Classic Maya because of its evocation of a 13th cycle. The relevant part of the text terminates the inscription: i-u-ti/tu? 4 K’an 7 Mak. The parallel with Tortuguero Monument 6 is clear, in that a future date jolts back to the present, as marked by a phrase beginning with i-.

Whatever Monument 6 has to tell us pertains to the dedication of the building associated with the sculpture. It has nothing to do with prophecy or the supposed, dread events that await us in AD 2012. About that the Maya are notably silent…or, truth be told, a bit boring.

Note – 9 Yookte’ (Bolon Yookte’) is an enigmatic expression. When postfixed by K’UH, it appears to identify some collective totality of gods. This is evident in the sequence of deities assembled or placed in order at the beginning of the last great cycle, as attested on the Ranieri “square” vessel and its counterpart, the so-called “Vase of the Seven Gods” (Coe 1973: pl. 49). Where understood, the other references to deities in this text signal the presence of pluralities, including the “Palenque Triad” (or its varying multitudes) and the “celestial” and “terrestrial gods.”

Fig. 1 Portion of Tortuguero Monument 6:pI5-pL5 (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer)


Fig. 2 Portion of Naranjo Altar 1:J5-J11 (drawing by Ian Graham)

Fig. 3 Portion of new La Corona, Panel 2:V5-V8 (drawing by David Stuart)


Coe, Michael
1973 The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: The Grolier Club.

Graham, Ian
1978 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 2: Naranjo, Chunhuitz, Xunantunich. Cambridge MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart
1996 Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70: 289-312.

29 thoughts on “What Will Not Happen in 2012

  1. David Stuart December 20, 2008 / 9:33 PM

    OK, Steve, let’s be prepared — you’ve opened Pandora’s Box with this one! I’ll wager that 2012 will now dominate the blog for months to come…

  2. Kathryn Kucharski December 21, 2008 / 2:13 AM


    Thank you for the clarification on the earlier decipherment and the other examples.

  3. Justin Kerr December 24, 2008 / 1:18 PM

    Dear Steve, Thank you for jumping into a pit of vipers with a strong antidote. I would like to add for clarification the the two vessels mentioned are easily found in the Mayavase database. The Square vessel is K 7750 and the vase of the seven gods is K2796.

  4. John Major Jenkins December 24, 2008 / 7:25 PM

    Hi Stephen,
    Thank you for your new thoughts on Tortuguero Monument 6. Your identification of other examples that project to future and past dates in order to relate them to a contemporary building dedication rituals suggests something intriguing about how the Maya conceived time.

    That two of the future dates utilized in this operation are baktun endings ( and likewise seems relevant. Perhaps this tells us something about how the Maya thought about baktun endings and thus why they wanted to connect them with a contemporary building dedication. You wrote:

    “Whatever Monument 6 has to tell us pertains to the dedication of the building associated with the sculpture. It has nothing to do with prophecy or the supposed, dread events that await us in AD 2012.”

    Your conclusion makes sense from the vantage point of dismissing silly doomsday notions, a much beaten and very dead horse, but I think what you have found begs another question: why would they have wanted to link the building dedication to the baktun ending in 2012? In other words, an underlying belief about baktun endings generally, or perhaps the one in 2012 specifically, must already be present that would explain why the future baktun ending has any importance for a contemporary building dedication. And what might that be?

    Is there a seed-planting “foundation” paradigm to building dedication ceremonies that make them conceptually analogous to Creation events? Would (in either 3114 BC or AD 2012) have been an appropriate reference point for a building’s birth? And would the deities connected with those era-inaugerating Creation events have been considered appropriate overseers to consecrate the dedication? I’d suspect so.

    Exploring these lines of thought might help us understand more deeply the cosmological significance of building dedications, as well as how big cycle endings like the ones in 830 AD and 2012 were perceived by the ancient Maya and were intertwined with other elements of Maya ritual. I don’t see how these things are boring.

    You wrote:
    “The future events are described as tzuhtzjoom u 13 pih 4 Ajaw 3 Uniiw utoom, all “impersonal” and “safely predictable” insofar as they are straightforward references to the conclusion of a major cycle at a particular Calendar Round.”

    Do you mean at a particular Calendar Round “position” or “date”? As it reads it sounds like you are stating that the baktun ending in 2012 coordinates with a Calendar Round ending, which it doesn’t. It’s a bit unclear. Best wishes,

    John Major Jenkins

  5. Robert Bast December 27, 2008 / 9:48 PM

    I would be more inclined to suggest that jumping forward a decade or so is one thing, but a date over 1000 years into the future is another.

    Dates in the foreseeable future are different to those a millennia away. For example, the 2012 date has many of us in a mad panic trying to determine what (if anything) will really happen. But if the end of this Long Count was in 4012, I doubt any of us would be discussing it at all.

  6. John Major Jenkins January 3, 2009 / 9:01 PM

    Hi Robert,

    I believe the issue under consideration is the relevance of utilizing a big cycle ending (no matter how far off into the past or future it occurs) as a reference point for a contemporary building dedication. In this context, a large cycle ending, such as the one in 2012, would be more evocative of a cosmological Creation Event through which the local building dedication would receive an analogous consecration. Nearness in time of a smaller cycle ending, such as a katun ending, would be less relevant than a baktun ending, let alone a 13-baktun ending, which is demonstrably associated with Creation Myth imagery. The metaphorical relationship between “house” (or a “building”) and “cosmos” is well demonstrated. Furthermore, Karl Taube demonstrated a metaphorical relationship between “cosmos” and “mother.” If we could only cite some scholar who explored the relationship between “house” and “cosmos” in the context of larger cosmological issues such as ballcourt Creation Myth imagery, we might be able to more fully understand how a 13-baktun ending would be an appropriate reference point for a 7th-century building dedication. The analogy between house and cosmos would provide the needed meaning to correlate the “seating” and “creation” of the cosmos with the creation/dedication of a building. Of course, we might question which came first, the chicken or the egg. Is a cosmos ordered like a house or is a house ordered like the cosmos? As one writer said – I can’t quite remember the author’s name – this chicken-or-egg question is a problem only if you don’t have a non-dual appreciation for the nature of reality, and how the concept of reciprocal metaphor allows us to resolve such questions by acknowledging the indissoluble, almost playful association between semantic domains. With this insightful perspective, we can better understand the relationship between local and cosmological creation events, as well as Classic Maya depictions of the built environment. Best wishes,

    John Major Jenkins

  7. David Stuart January 14, 2009 / 4:59 PM

    To address a couple of points brought up here, yes, one has to wonder why particular “deep future” stations of the calendar are emphasized in certain texts. The La Corona example is a bit different from the others, since it’s not very deep at all; it simply anticipates the soon-approaching K’atun ending ( in nearby “experiential” time. The Naranjo altar mentions — well over two centuries in its future — probably because the rhetoric of this text and its accompanying stelae emphasized the local ruler’s impressive participation in lots of K’atun rituals (he was a very long-lived guy). In the rhetorical language of the texts, such K’atun endings were “of” the next Bak’tun, so it makes sense there. On the Tortuguero inscription that Steve correctly analyzes, the mention of 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in may well seem a bit over-reaching, but it clearly has a specific role in the wider narrative of the text. We’re missing the opening portion of the entire inscription, which probably would have helped to explain its general point.

    I do find it interesting that the building dedication Steve mentions, connected no doubt with the original placement of Monument 6, may have been for a type of shrine called a pibnaah (the evidence is indirect but good, based on a connection this text makes with a still earlier shrine construction 160 years in the past). Pibnaah is a rare and highly specialized term for a sort of “inner sanctum” found elsewhere only at Palenque as the word for the three interior sanctuaries of the Cross Group temples — the god-houses for the Palenque Triad. I suspect that Monument 6 was a tablet originally set inside of a similar interior pibnaah, attributed with a particular local deity or group of gods.

    The overarching connection here could be that pibnaah shrines were highly restricted and ritually charged spaces where time itself took on different representations. We get a feeling of this at Palenque, where the pibnaah all housed famous tablets recording remarkable deep-time narratives of the births of the Triad gods, shortly after 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u. As deep places where deities were figuratively “born” or resided, the pibnaahs could have been appropriate locales for representing mythical events and extreme time-frames. In this light, if the lost Tortuguero building was in fact a pibnaah, then the deep-future reference to 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in might be somehow fitting. Without the original archaeological context for Monument 6 we can never know for sure, so I offer this as speculation.

  8. RaiulBaztepo March 28, 2009 / 10:43 PM

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  9. Thompson Correlation and Julian calendar October 14, 2009 / 2:29 PM


    I see that your Maya calendar conversions use the Thompson (Lounsbury) correlation of 584,285 days. Do you believe that this has more credibility than the GMT correlation? It might be helpful to note this as you did with the Julian calendar.

    Also you use Julian dates for dates after the start of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. This is unusual. Thanks for noting this. It is helpful to state what calendar one is using.

  10. Balam December 9, 2009 / 3:21 PM

    Thank You for this article
    this a good source of information,
    I am getting tired of the 2012 misconception.
    thanks again for this write.

  11. 2012 reality January 30, 2010 / 10:37 AM

    Whatever Monument 6 has to tell us pertains to the dedication of the building associated with the sculpture. It has nothing to do with prophecy or the supposed, dread events that await us in AD 2012.

  12. Bret Goodyear August 15, 2010 / 7:28 PM

    If I have read this webblog correctly it is suggested that Bolon Yokte descending in 2012 as a prophetic interpretation has been reinterpreted as a building dedication that refers to 2012 only as a reference point?

    Are you sure that this hypothesis is stonger than the original conclusion (regardless of the fact that the content is a mysterious prophecy). Even if we were to take the similiarites between descending and dedicating and the example of a Baktun ending elswhere as a time correlation. Is that sufficient evidence to overturn the original translation?

    There are two facts that are important to consider. One fact is that the long count calendar is bookended firstly by a begining/creation analogy and a secondly by a terminus date occuring in December of 2012. The monument mentions both Bolon Yokte, who was at the maya creation in 3114 BC) and the date 2012. The second fact is that Bolon Yokte is not mentioned on any other building dedication monuments. Leading us to conclude that it is in reference to 2012 and the first translation was correct.

    -Respectfully Submitted; Bret G.

  13. Santhush January 9, 2011 / 10:08 AM

    Great work!

    I have several questions to be clarified

    1. According to Mayan history, will end of Mayan calendar cycle ( mark the doomsday for the world?

    2. Sri Lankan Archeologists/ experts opine that there are major similarities between the Mayan, Egyptian and ancient Sri Lankan culture. Has there been any study done on this?

    3. Also Sri Lankan astronomers have calculated the end of the calendar and / End of Era (Kalpaanthaya-) to occur on or around December 12, 2012? Could there be any similarities between Mayan and ancient Sri Lankan astronomic calculations? (Could this discrepancy possibly due to the differences among Vedic (ancient Indian colander used by Sri Lankan astrologers), Mayan and Gregorian calendars.

    Keep up the great work & Thank you,



  14. Jens Rohark January 15, 2011 / 8:00 PM

    Dear Stephen,

    I don´t know if you remember me, I wrote you many years ago… I am from former east Germany…. Anyway, this is for everybody:

    Does anyone have a drawing of the inscription with the date of 2012 from Comalcalco???

    I just cannot find it anywhere. It is engraved on a bone, and was discovered recently.
    Rumors say there is a third one, but I don´t know from which place.
    Any inscription with 4 Ajaw 3 K´ank´in???

    Thanks in advance

    Jens Rohark a.k.a. Lacambalam

    PS: Free codex drawings and many nice photos – see my website.

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