Q & A about 2012

Seems the whole “end of the world in 2012” brouhaha is stirring again with the upcoming release of the special effects disaster film, 2012. While topics on this blog are often meant to be pretty scholarly and technical, I thought it useful to offer a simple run-down of important points about what the ancient Maya really had to say — or not — about the “end” of their calendar.

Does the Maya calendar end in 2012?

No it doesn’t. What will happen is a recurrence, an anniversary of sorts, of a key mythological date in the distant past. The Maya wrote this as in their “Long Count” calendar (an abbreviation of a much bigger number), which fell on August 11, 3114 B.C. (some correlations of the two calendars say August 13, but I don’t really care). This “creation date” was not the beginning of everything, however. Maya mythological texts tell us that plenty was happening long, long before this starting point of the current era. On December 21, 2012 (some say December 23) we come again to a numerological recurrence of The Long Count calendar continues well beyond this date, too. In fact, the numerology of the calendar demands that there will be other similar recurrences of this same date in the far distant future, on a scale of octillions of years. The scale of Maya time reckoning dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many orders of magnitude.

What did the Maya say about 2012?

They actually said very little, if anything. Only one ancient inscription refers to the upcoming date in 2012, from a now destroyed site named Tortuguero. The question we scholars have struggled with is whether the final few hieroglyphs of that text describe anything about what will happen. A few years ago I put forward a very tentative and incomplete reading of these damaged glyphs, including a possible use of a verb meaning “descend” and a name of a god, Bolon Yokte’. Much of it was iffy and remains so; I’m not sure I believe much of what I wrote back then. More recently my colleague Steve Houston has pointed out the glyphs may not even pertain to that date anyway. So there’s considerable ambiguity just in the reading of the glyphs and the rhetorical structure of the Tortuguero passage. What we can say with confidence is that the ancient Maya left no clear or definite record about 2012 and its significance. There is certainly no ancient claim that the world or any part of it will come to an end.

Who came up with this crazy idea?

New Age hacks and, now, Hollywood producers. The idea can be traced largely back to the novelist and mystic named Frank Waters, who in the 1960s and 70s wrote a number of novels and cultural treatises on Native Americans of the American southwest, including his 1963 work, Book of the Hopi (he was not an anthropologist). One of Waters’ last works was Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth Age of Consciousness (1975), an odd pastiche of Aztec and Maya philosophies wherein he proposed that the “end” of the calendar would somehow involve a transformation of world spiritual awareness. Waters’ ideas got picked up and expanded upon by Jose Arguelles in his insanely misguided but influential book The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology (1987). Many different writers have followed with their own strange books and essays on the “meaning” of 2012, mostly contradicting one another.

What about the astronomy?

The Maya were fine astronomers, but the 2012 date has little if anything to do with astronomy. Despite claims about the appearance of a “galactic alignment” in late December three years from now, modern scientific astronomers reject this notion pretty much out of hand. Besides, no ancient Maya text or artwork makes reference to anything of the kind.

What do the present-day Maya have to say about 2012?

Although the 260-day round of the ancient calendar system survived in a few areas of highland Guatemala, the 2012 date has nothing to do with it. It’s only associated with the Long Count, which ceased being used well before the conquest. So, any mention of 2012 by modern Maya peoples is probably an example of media or New Age influence.

So, in sum, what’s been widely circulated in the popular imagination about 2012 has little to do about true ancient Maya belief or notions of prophecy.

My brief comments will probably instigate even more endless 2012 discussion and debate, but I respectfully request that such exchanges be taken elsewhere. What more I have to say on the subject, mostly on the nature of the ancient calendar as a whole, will appear in my upcoming book about Maya time, appearing sometime next year.

41 thoughts on “Q & A about 2012

  1. Johan Normark October 11, 2009 / 7:10 PM

    Your blog post will hopefully stir the growing “community” of 2012 hoaxers. Now that the creationists have joined the circus we are up for an entertaining and frustrating three years to come. The most recent “theory” I have seen is that the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama is part of the illuminati conspiracy to let us all live in oblivion of the upcoming disaster when planet Nibiru destroys the Earth in 2012 (of course also prophesized by Chinese, Egyptians, Hopi, Atlantis, Nostradamus, etc.). The galactic alignment seems to be so innocent in this company…

  2. Stanley Guenter October 12, 2009 / 5:24 AM

    One thing that I find interesting is that Tortuguero Monument 6 records that the day 4 Ahau 3 Kankin is the ending of 13 baktuns. It doesn’t say the end of 1 pictun, which one would expect if the Maya actually counted 13 baktuns as forming 1 pictun. I think this is quite important as the Maya, when talking about Period Endings, don’t relate the ending of smaller units; they invariably describe the PE as the ending of the highest unit that turned over on that date. Katun endings, for example, aren’t described as the ending of a tun, or a winal etc.

    Given how regular this pattern is, I think we can state that the only Maya text that mentions 2012 not only does not describe it as the end of the world, and not only does not describe this date as the end of the Maya calendar, it doesn’t even describe this event as the end of the Maya baktun cycle. From Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions we know that the scribes at that site counted 20 baktuns as forming a single pictun and Tortuguero Monument 6 conforms to this calculation. There is thus, as far as I know, not a single Maya text that indicates that 2012 is anything other than a normal “millenium” change for the Maya calendar. It isn’t even a point where the Maya calendar turns to 1 with a bunch of zeros after it.

    So if 2012 wasn’t that important, why did the scribes of Tortuguero even mention it on their monument carved back in the 7th century? I think we have a pretty good idea of this as well. The end of 13 baktuns on a day 4 Ahau reflects the same units seen on the “creation date” thousands of years earlier. In addition, 4 Ahau was the latest Period Ending date (, 4 Ahau 13 Mol) before the dedication of Monument 6 (dedicated, 9 Edznab 6 Kayab). So the like-in-kind nature of this future PE was of interest to the Maya scribe/astrologer and this is probably why the 2012 date was mentioned.

    Thus I think we can not only say that the Maya didn’t describe 2012 as the end of their calendar, we have evidence that it wasn’t even the mother of all Period Endings that 2012ers would have us believe. For that, the end of 1 pictun, we’ll have to wait another 2700 years.

    • Johan Normark October 13, 2009 / 5:13 AM

      Good points Stan. I guess the main argument for the 13 Baktun “end date” is that this current “era” should be as long as the past one. However, there is no reason to believe this was the case. The 2012ers often conflate the Maya Long Count with the Aztec 5 Suns (such as Jenkins multiplying 5 with the length of the 13 Baktuns to come up with his Platonic year correlation). However, what is left out (among other things) is that the Aztec 5 Suns had different durations (being different multiples of 52 years). There is therefore no reason to believe that all Maya cycles were 13 Baktuns long as the inscription of the next piktun at Palenque indicates. But the main problem is of course the very mixture of Aztec (read: the Calendar Stone) and Maya calendars. As far as I can tell there are no mentions of 4 earlier creations/Suns in Classic period Maya inscriptions in the first place:


    • Ernest Moyer October 30, 2009 / 1:36 PM

      We all normally think of calendars as running in sequence from some starting point, as in Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. Is it possible that the Maya were not counting from some starting point, like August 11, 3114 B.C., but were working toward some fulfillment, like a full Bactun count toward 2012? In other words, they were not counting from the start but counting toward the finish. Is there any any indication anywhere in their writings or inscriptions that they had that kind of psychology? If that were true we would have a totally different understanding of their purpose.

      • Stanley Guenter December 2, 2009 / 12:18 AM

        This is definitely the argument that a lot of the 2012ers are making, that the Maya calendar was designed specifically to end on December 21st, 2012. There are many problems with such an idea. For one thing, it would make the Maya calendar unique in the history of humanity. Many different calendars exist or have existed in different cultures, from the Hebrew calendar, the Seleucid era of the Near East, the Shaka era of India and Southeast Asia, the Buddhist Era of many other countries in South and Southeast Asia etc. These calendars all were designed to count time from a specific starting point, with no designated end date. There is no reason to believe the Maya calendar was any different. There are dozens of references in Classic Maya texts to the 4 Ahau 8 Cumku starting point of their calendar. There is but a single reference to the putative end date of, 4 Ahau 3 Kankin. The heavy emphasis on the beginning date of this calendar makes it quite clear that the Maya calendar is not unique and, like all others, was designed to count time from the beginning point.
        Furthermore, as I pointed out above, the idea that the Maya calendar reached a “full Baktun count” in 2012 is simply erroneous. All evidence we have indicates the Maya counted 20 baktuns in a pictun, which means there is no “fulfillment” in 2012, simply another stage along the road to 4772. And even in 4772 there is no reason to believe the Maya calendar “ends”.

    • paul December 16, 2009 / 1:32 AM

      Well, think of a line graph. The long count is like a graph with specific dimensions(including 20 baktun). It has to be this size because they need to plot coordinates for a line. The line occurs at the coordinates It’s slope is based on a 72 year rise. It is a simple change over time graph. I deal with a similar graph in the 3d animation software I use…which ironically is called MAYA. It would appear the long count does indeed measure the platonic year. Or at least… it is measuring some regular cycle that occurs at a rate of 73 tun. Have a good day.

  3. Rob Bast October 12, 2009 / 7:23 AM

    Often when the idea of a 2012 calamity is debunked, we are told that it is just the end of a cycle and start of a new cycle, and the Mayans did not predict anything bad for 2012. This is true. What is conveniently left out is what Mayan & Aztec myths had to say about the ends of the previous cycles – humankind being wiped out. 2012 doomsdayers are merely extrapolating the myths of the past, applying them to 2012, and warning of the possibilities.

    I’d have more faith in an inert end of cycle if someone could explain why the Mayans chose a start date for their Long Count calendar so long before the existence of their civilization, or even that of the Aztecs. For if the start date has no meaning or importance, then perhaps the end date does… Or did they just randomly choose a date?

  4. Francis Murphy October 16, 2009 / 7:05 PM

    So what ever happen to Monument 6? I have only found some drawings of glyphs and never any photographs of Tortuguero Mayan site on the internet. I did read somewhere that the site has been destroyed due to modern buildings covering the site?
    Could someone recommend a book that would cover Tortuguero Mayan site?

    Thank you

  5. Miriam Z October 23, 2009 / 1:37 AM

    Hello Dr Stuart

    Regarding the upcoming movie 2012. I am disgusted with Hollywood distorting and fictionalizing Maya text to make a buck. Another fine example of Hollywood running out of ideas to sell movies. I will say no more.

    I saw you in on Nova’s, “Cracking the Maya Code” and was fascinated by your work (and the other scholars) on Maya Hieroglyphics. I am so pleased that the accumulation of many years of previous work has lead to the decipherment of the glyphs. Your work has allowed me to discover the rich history of my people( Guatemala).

  6. fernando alcocer October 31, 2009 / 6:35 PM

    agradesco infinitamente estas Aclaraciones, pues ud. Puede ver cuanta gente abusa y muchos se hacen ricos con la ignorancia de la gente, ojala los buenos estudios arqueologicos fueran mas espeditos y asi conocer lo mas apegado a la verdad y nosotros como guias de turistas poder proporcionar una informacion mas veras a nuestros visitantes en mi pais(mexico) y a nuestro pueblo.

    atte. fernando alcocer

  7. Mexique Ancien November 1, 2009 / 3:50 AM

    Thanks for this note, Dr Stuart… There’s a lot of wrong information in France too. That’s why I translated and resumed your note, adding other informations too sustain your opinion. It’s good to read really “informed” people who go agains the main stream of ideas.

  8. megan November 4, 2009 / 3:25 AM

    I slightly disagree about their statement that modern Maya have nothing to say about it. it’s not so hard to integrate the day round into the long count, and Mayan scholars have been doing a lot of important work on translations and stuff, and the calender remains important in many communities, thus I do think that they might have some important insights on the nature of Maya cosmovision and conceptions of time. Although some are influenced by new age stuff, others are incorporating archeological findings into their maintained traditions, which is a very different thing.

    • David Stuart November 9, 2009 / 5:13 AM

      Well, it’s important to make clear that the 2012 business is really only about the Long Count. Although the traditional 260-day calendar is still very much in use in parts of Guatemala and Mexico, it operates completely independently and doesn’t key in to any larger cycles involving Bak’tuns and the like. They are separate systems. By the way, I didn’t say the Maya have “nothing to say about it.” Some apparently do, even if some of their statements on 2012 are based on absorbed false claims from the outside, disguised as valid knowledge about the past. Most people, including my knowledgeable Maya colleagues, are aware that the 2012 phenomenon is a modern contrivance that originated out of pseudo-native mysticism of the USA — not from the Mesoamerican world.

      • Miriam Z November 9, 2009 / 5:22 AM

        I totally agree with your comment. In that the 2012 phenomenon is created by a frenzy of spiritualism, of sorts from the USA.

        All of a sudden one starts to see far fetched ideas, mysticisms based upon 2012. I think it is a far reaching attempt to “see in to the future”.

      • Ernest Moyer November 9, 2009 / 11:01 AM

        Com’on, fellas and gals. Seems to me this is a lot more than pseudo-native mysticism. Since 1960 we can blow the world to smithereens. If some minds should tie this terminal event to a projected future in two more years they are only reflecting a fear that is in all of us. As Herbert Armstrong once said, he goes to sleep every night with a nuclear bomb under his pillow. World tensions are on the rise, a lot due to religious extremism. Near economic collapse does not help to relieve our concerns. This conceptual fear may arise in the USA, but I now a lot of people around the world who are into projecting the end in 2012. We should not so easily slough off a concern that ties events to dates. I think it rather uncanny that the ancient Maya should come up with a calendar system that just happens to terminate at this point in time. And what is this about 4 Ahua, any how?

  9. Miriam Z November 4, 2009 / 5:10 AM

    I would like to know and understand howyou can correlate a particular gylph to an indian word.

    Are you assuming that the indian language ( or particular dialect) has not changed in hundreds and hundreds of years.

    How can you be certain that today’s indian language was spoken at a particular time?

    I understand that in order to decipher what the glyphs say, you assume that the language spoken was a current indian mayan language.

    What language are you using to decipher the glyphs? K’che?

  10. Miriam Z November 4, 2009 / 5:15 AM


    What do you think of the current find, in Guatemala, El Mirador? Cnn has been commenting on it being the biggest pyramid in the world. All structures covered in jungle.

    What a fantastic find!! But who is in charge of teh excavation? What university is he from.

    According to CNN they also found a mint stella indicating a passage from the Popol Vuh.

  11. jaime Moreno November 16, 2009 / 4:25 PM

    Hi David, this is my first view to your web and I´m really glad with. About 2012 world´s end, I’ve got to say something: lot of what guatemala mayans say is product of ONG’s market. Belive me, this combination of new age and maya is focus in International cooperation money. You know, been a maya saying the forests, lakes and animals are my brothers… sells. We know well that the real maya people didn’t ask every three, every deer.. hey, my friend, can I painfully distroy you with my axe?

    This is something that people out of Guatemala never know… but us… the guatemalans… know well the truth.

    Hey, one question: what book can I read to learn about gliphs? I have Coe’s books and took some courses whit Dr Chinchilla. thanks and regards

  12. Ernest Moyer December 2, 2009 / 9:49 AM

    As you state, the different cultures had different calendars. The Chinese was assigned a start date in 2696 BCE. The Hindu in 3102 BCE. The Hebrew in 3761 BCE. These are all mythical start dates we believe were invented by people later in that culture. All were lunar-solar calendars that required adjustment as the centuries rolled by.

    Today the de facto calendar of the world is the Christian. The Christian calendar also needed adjustment we now call the Gregorian calendar. It did not start on some mythical date but on the deliberate birth of a man. That man was Jesus. That fact is a statement of the powerful influence of a single individual upon the world. Many people believe that only God could have such powerful influence.

    The Maya had a calendar that was the most sophisticated ever invented by man. It never required adjustment to keep it in step with the ages. If the correlations are correct it started on 13 (11) August, 3114 BCE. The 13 (11) of August has an important astronomical event: the Milky Way stands erect in the sky from north to south, passing through the zenith. Since the monumental evidence shows a bactun count of only five digits, we must assume that the Maya were interested only in a bactun count of five digits. The La Mojarra Stela 1, for example, has a Long Count date of, or 156 CE. This bactun count has been filling up since the beginning of the calendar more that 5,000 years ago. It will fill up on Dec 21, 2012. December 21 marks the winter solstice. Hence the Maya calendar has two astronomical events to mark it, the start date, and the bactun fill-up date. No matter how we may regard these events, they are mighty in their implications: they mark a 5,000 year record, with astronomical significance. So it is natural for many to react to these facts with deep concern, to see them as the “end.”

    Now I would like to know how a stone age people, with blow-guns as their most powerful weapons, were able to invent such a calendar, with the astronomical implications.

  13. EJ Albright December 21, 2009 / 11:18 PM

    A few years ago I set out to find what the Maya of today think about 2012. While I suppose the concept of mankind elevating to the next stage of spiritual consciousness (whatever that means) is a recent invention of New Agists, the idea of 2012 as a portent of the apocalypse is not. There seems to be a very strong folk tradition among some contemporary Maya who see the end of the world coming and this does not appear to be some gringo invention.

    Here’s a radio documentary I created that includes my interview with the Maya of Felipe Carrillo Puerto: http://www.americanegypt.com/feature/2012.htm


    — EJ Albright

  14. Snody (Lowe) Duck January 5, 2010 / 10:48 PM

    My Grandfather was an archeologist with the Brigham Young New World Archeological Foundation in Chiapas, Mexico.
    I only had one conversation with my Grandfather about the calendar…if I had known it would be the only conversation, I might have committed more to memory.
    I’m just glad to find there is an objective conversation going on out there…and that not everyone is waiting for the world to end.

  15. Ray Mardyks August 4, 2012 / 2:41 AM

    Regarding the “galactic alignment” (simplified as the solstices aligning with the galactic equator) circa 1998/2001, I coined this phrase (1991) within an astrological context suggesting a relationship to the Harmonic Convergence (1987) and the end of the 13-baktun (2012). I noted 13-tun cycles connecting these times (1987-2000-2012). This has been confused with an alignment/conjunction of the Dec. solstice with the galactic center, which astronomically and astrological occurs circa 2240. My “galactic alignment” insight has been credited to the “ancient” Maya and taken far out of context. Its astrological “meaning” has not been fully discussed or disclosed. Think of how one lines up a pool cue BEFORE making the shot. It is only one of several factors contributing to the astrology of 2012. Other factors, involving Venus and eclipses, are accurately forecast in the Dresden Codex.

  16. Kermit Frazier August 4, 2012 / 8:58 PM

    re:”Galactic Alingment”

    Considering that the Earth/Solar System is ALWAYS aligned perfectly with Galactic Center, I have to ask what do the New Age Hacks provide as the ‘other’ point of alignment?
    Also, regarding the term “New Age Hacks”, I agree completely with this usage, since New Age Entrepreneurs have ‘hacked’ World/Tribal Religions to tailor make a product to sell to the gullible. (and the gullible, know themselves to be so, never ask to be disillusioned)

    • Ray Mardyks August 4, 2012 / 9:09 PM

      The position of the Sun at the moment of solstice. This is a starting point. Began near the Harmonic Convergence in 1987 and concludes this December 21. Also the galactic alignment was originally defined as the solstices aligning with the galactic equator visually seen as the Milky Way. The alignment with galactic “center” occurs circa 2240 and has been hyped as a 2012 event. It is not. I have also been hacked by the so-called new agers. This is an astrological idea and is not to be taken as a literal scientific event.

      • Kermit Frazier August 10, 2012 / 1:34 AM

        Very good. Actually I caught that in another of your posts. Still, the hype has taken on a ‘Life of its Own’ and Nobody, not you or I, can stop it!

        At least there is a lot of attention focused on the Maya, who are certainly capable of taking the ball and running with it!

      • Ray Mardyks August 10, 2012 / 2:19 AM

        The “misinformation” campaign started by Coe in 1966 and perpetuated by Jenkins has a purpose. It is a subliminal “mind-control” experiment. The modern Maya are involuntary scapegoats. I don’t believe they still have the ancient “galactic” calendar codes anymore. The hieroglyphs work on at least two levels and with all due respect to the level that epigraphers are translating, the other deeper level has yet to be decoded. I’d love to have someone tell me the “narrative” of the Dresden Codex, for example. The misinformation serves to satisfy the curious and the profane, so they don’t look any deeper. A recent blog about the galactic alignment can be found here: http://haecceities.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/brief-update-3/

  17. David Stuart August 10, 2012 / 10:07 AM

    Comments are now closed, given that this is now an old entry. And with “ancient ‘galactic’ calendar codes” and “mind control” now emerging as topics of discussion, it’s definitely time to move on.

Comments are closed.