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The Maya Calendar and 2012 Phenomenon

Studies: An Introduction
JOHN B. CARLSON
Abstract
This brief essay introduces eight papers in
a thematic volume of Archaeoastronomy de-
voted to research into the Maya calendar,
creation mythology, prophecy, and the 2012
phenomenon. It includes six ne w and expanded
discussions of research presented at the special
session "The 2012 Phenomenon: Maya Cal-
endar, Astronomy, and Apocalypticism in the
Worlds of Scholarship and Popular Culture,"
which was part of the Ninth "Oxford" Inter-
national Symposium on Archaeoastronomy
(IAU S278) held in Lima, Peru, January 5-9,
2011. These eight papers, including a brief in-
troduction (immediately following) by Mark
Van Stone to the Maya calendar and the Long
Count in particular, address research interests
within six categories of investigation, includ-
ing several caveats outlined here.
Resumen
Este breve ensayo presenta ocho artculos
incluidos en el volumen temtico de Archaeo-
astronomy dedicado a las investigaciones del
calendario Maya, de la mitologa relacionada
con la creacin, las profecas y el "fenmeno
del 2012". Incluye seis nuevas aportacio-
nes surgidas a raz de la sesin especial: "El
fenmeno del 2012: el calendario Maya, la
Astronoma y el fenmeno apocalptico en
el mundo cientfico y de la cultura popular",
organizada durante la Conferencia Intemacio-
nal de Arqueoastronoma, "Oxford IX" (IAU
Symposium N 278) celebrada en Lima, Per,
entre el 5 y el 9 de enero de 2011. Estos ocho
artculos, incluyendo una breve introduccin
de Mark Van Stone a la temtica del calendario
Maya, y de la Cuenta Larga en particular, pre-
sentan el tema de inters en seis categoras de
investigacin, incluyendo varias salvedades
descritas aqu.
The first academic session, "The 2012 Phenomenon:
Maya Calendar, Astronomy, and Apocalypticism in
the Worlds of Scholarship and Popular Culture," was
organized by John B. Carlson and Mark Van Stone as
part of the Ninth "Oxford" International Symposium
on Archaeoastronomy held in Lima, Peru, January
5-9, 2011. This conference was also sponsored by
the International Astronomical Union as IAU Sym-
posium no. 278 with the theme "Archaeoastronomy
and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges between
Cultures." The select proceedings of IAU S278
were edited by Clive Ruggles (2011) and published
within eight months by Cambridge University Press.
Because the IAU applies stringent restrictions on
style and length, designed for astronomical research
John B. Carlson, an astronomer by training, is the director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy and the editor in chief of Archaeoostronomy.
Dr. Carlson is an expert on Native American astrononny and cosmologies, specializing in studies of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The art,
iconography, calendar systems, and hieroglyphic writing of the Maya and Highland Mexican civilizations are particular interests, and the
archaeology of pilgrimage is a current special research focus. Ancient and contemporary Maya calendars and the 2012 phenomenon
have been personal areas of exploration for more than thirty years. In this context, he was the organizer (with Mark Van Stone) of the first
academic session on 2012 phenomenon studies held as part of the Ninth "Oxford" International Symposium on Archaeoastronomy (IAU
S278) in Lima, Peru, in January 2011 and is the volume editorfor the present/Irchoeoostronomy 24. Carlson is senior lecturer in the University
Honors Program, University of Maryland-College Park, where he teaches courses in astronomy, anthropology, and the history of science.
2011 by the University of Texas Press, PO Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819
papers, only abbreviated versions of the participants'
papers were published in these proceedings. There-
fore, the present volume of Archaeoastronomy was
organized to give the six presenters (Carl Callaway,
John Carlson, Michael Grofe, John Hoopes, Barbara
MacLeod, and Mark Van Stone) the opportunity to
contribute longer, more complete, well-illustrated
studies as well as to invite contributions by two ad-
ditional authors (Erik Boot and Kevin Whitesides).
December 21, the winter solstice, 2012 CE will
mark the completion of one highly significant 5,125-
year cycle in the ancient Maya Long Count calendar,
the period of 13 Bak'tuns, or 13 times 144,000 days.
Many details of the elaborate Maya calendar, includ-
ing this remarkable period, have been rediscovered
and studied by scholars in the field for more than
a century. The academic investigation of all the
complex Mesoamerican calendar systems and their
colonial survivals is certainly a worthy pursuit for
students of astronomy in culture, but within the last
twenty years or so, particularly with the advent of
the new millennium, knowledge of the Maya 13
Bak'tun Long Count cycle has moved out of aca-
demia into world popular culture with a myriad of
new syncretic, often "New Age," and counterculture
forms at an exponentially increasing pace. As a re-
sult of the Internet and forms of social networking
such as blogs, knowledge of what was once an eso-
teric scholarly concern is now being aggressively
appropriated by new cults and individual religious
expressions around the globe. As we are now on the
eve of the completion of this grand span of time,
studies of the 2012 phenomenon in popular culture
are more appropriate than ever for students of our
interdiscipline.
In my estimation, there are fewer than two dozen
professional and competent amateur Mayanists,
worldwide, who have actively devoted a significant
portion of their research to some aspect of the 2012
phenomenon. Probably most professional Meso-
americanists have some opinion about the comple-
tion of the Maya 13 Bak'tun Long Count cycle in
2012 when they are asked for comment by their
students or the press, but few have any real knowl-
edge beyond what they have gleaned from general
published sources, which is, unfortunately, precious
little. To complicate the situation, there are an in-
creasing number of self-appointed experts on the
Maya calendar and 2012 who have flooded the web
and "metaphysical" shelves at bookstores with works
that range from sincere, though simplistic and mis-
guided, personal explorations to pseudoscholarship
and the rants of out-and-out charlatans and exploi-
tational writers trying to cash in on the event. Thirty
years ago there were just a few such fringe publica-
tions circulating to small audiences. Now there are
more than 1,500 books (see Whitesides, this volume)
that can be purchased from small local bookshops as
well as through online megastores. The public crav-
ings for esoteric apocalyptic secrets and millennial
visions, ranging from catastrophic Armageddons to
the dawning of an enlightened "New Age," are being
fed by a virtual army of these "Feathered Snake-oil
salesmen" as many await the return of the "Plumed
Serpent," Quetzalcoatlthe Maya K'uk'ulkanon
December 21, 2012. Of the multitude of books on
2012 now available, perhaps five or six have any
content of credible worth; in regard to television
documentaries and movies, that number would be
very close to zero. It is therefore timely and appropri-
ate that the few scholars who have invested their time
and done the research go on record and present their
investigations for their colleagues and the general
public alike. Archaeoastronomy (including ethno-
astronomy), as the study of astronomy (and related
subjects) in culture, is inherently multidisciplinary
and interdisciplinary and is uniquely constituted to
address such research questions.
Background
The Maya, as we call them today, were and still are a
diverse Mesoamerican people living largely in what
is now the Yucatn Peninsula, Tabasco, and Chiapas
in Mexico; Belize; Guatemala; plus parts of Hondu-
ras and El Salvador. They form an ethnic-linguistic
group whose origins can be traced back more than
3,500 years, and today there are perhaps still thirty
living Mayan languages spoken by several million
people. Certainly, by the Late Formative Period, ca.
200 BCE, the Maya had formed complex state-level
societies, with the rise of polities ruled by hereditary
dynasts who would eventually claim divine status.
ARCHAEOASTRONOMY
The Maya are world-renowned for having created
a full logosyllabic writing system, a sophisticated
arithmetic (with zero and place notation), astron-
omy, and a remarkable calendar as well as complex
hierarchical societies that developed advanced agri-
cultural systems and sophisticated long-distance
interregional exchange networks.
It was roughly at that time (ca. 200 BCE) that
the Maya, or possibly a neighboring Formative
Mesoamerican people with whom they interacted,
created the splendid edifice of the Maya calendar,
which included what we call for simplicity the "Long
Count." This is a count of daysvery much like
J. J. Scaliger's Julian Day Number (JDN) system
used today by astronomers and chronologistspro-
jected back to a "creation" or "era event" beginning
the present cycle of 13 Bak'tuns (or 13 Piks, about
5,125 years) on August 11, 3114 BCE. In one of
the two most favored correlations (the 584,283-day
Goodman-Martinez-Thompson [GMT] correlation)
of the Maya Long Count with our Gregorian calen-
dar, this cycle will end on December 21, 2012 CE,
which happens to be the winter solstice in their terri-
tory. (This may well be a fortuitous coincidence, but
the topic is a matter for research, not speculation,
and depends on, among other factors, the correct cal-
endar correlation.) Indeed, the correlation of Maya
chronology with ours is not absolutely certain, but
most Mayanists currently accept a correlation that
would place this ending date on December 21 (GMT)
or 23, 2012 (in the Thompson-Lounsbury [TL] cor-
relation, also known as GMT -i- 2). However, many
of the important discussions of the nature and work-
ings of the ancient Maya calendar do not depend
on knowing this correlation, although astronomical
considerations obviously do.
The zenith of Maya civilization was arguably
reached in the Late Classic Period, ca. 600-900 CE,
with an interaction sphere of powerful, competing,
often warring city-states that traded and exchanged
goods and ideas with other Mesoamerican cultures
to the west across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the
Gulf Coast, Central Mexico, and Oaxaca and to the
east into Central America and the Caribbean. A sin-
gle unified Maya Empire never formed. Following
the so-called Maya Collapse in the Central Lowlands
at the end of the Classic Period (largely as a result
of overpopulation and environmental degradation
with drought as the likely trigger), Maya culture
continued on in new forms, but most of the highly
sophisticated portions of their calendar and astron-
omy, including the Long Count, were eventually lost
except perhaps in some extremely limited contexts,
such as the Dresden Codex (see, e.g., Dresden Co-
dex 1962; Thompson 1972; Villacorta and Villacorta
1930). The last known dated Maya monument was
erected in 909 CE. Following European contact and
the Spanish conquest, only the Tzolk'in (the sacred,
divinatory 260-day count) and "Year-Bearer" sys-
tems have survived into the twenty-first century. The
Highland Guatemalan Quiche (or K'iche') Maya
calendar, with its 260-day count and practices of
calendrical divination and prophecy, has endured
apparently without losing a single day, still in lock-
step with the ancestral day count according to the
GMT correlation.
Scholarly research on the Maya calendar and the
2012 phenomenon is now, more than ever, a serious
and growing area of academic inquiry, and most of
the knowledgeable and cotnmitted researchers know
one another and engage in active exchange. For the
special session organized for IAU Symposium 278
as well as the present topical Archaeoastronomy vol-
ume, six general areas of research have been selected
for consideration. These research questions are out-
lined below, accompanied by several caveats.
7. f^aya calendar and chronology and the
13 Bak'tun Long Count cycle in particular and
what the ancient Maya might have anticipated
for the end of this era
What is the relevant scholarship and status of re-
search concerning the Maya calendar and chronology
and the 13 Bak'tun Long Count cycle in particular?
Can we form testable hypotheses in regard to what
the ancient Maya, from different times and places,
might have expected to happen on the 13.0.0.0.0
4 Ahaw 3 Kank'in (December 21/23,2012) comple-
tion date? (See Coe 2011; Van Stone 2010; and Boot;
Callaway; Carlson; Grofe; MacLeod; and Van Stone
in this volume.) This period can also be thought of as
260 prophetic K'atuns (of 7,200 days each), which is
VOLUME XXIV 2011
another vital aspect of this great cycle in both Classic
and Postclassic times. It would certainly have been
anticipated as the return of a preeminent like-in-kind
temporal event, including the participation of the an-
cestors and cosmogonie gods, to be accompanied by
highly significant rites of passage and ceremonies of
renewal. As a generalization, we understand that all
Mesoamerican peoples experienced time as a com-
plex interwoven tapestry of recurring cycles, where
at least the personified animate forces influencing
"history," if not history itself, would repeat with the
same gods or orderly succession of supematurals
inaugurated to preside over the events taking place
in the Underworld (Night Sky), on the Earth's sur-
face, and in the Upperworld (Daytime Sky). These
questions of what they might have anticipated relate
not only to the various Maya calendrical cycles and
cosmologies themselves, then and now, but also to
those of other Mesoamerican peoples with whom
they interacted. Therefore, can we also learn more
about the Maya worldview from appropriate cross-
cultural comparative studies?
2. Astronomical aspects associated with the
Maya 13 Bak'tun Long Count calendar
The 13 Bak'tun Long Count cycle is almost cer-
tainly a "purely" calendrical creation, but claims
have been made or asserted in regard to the timing
of astronomical events at both the beginning and end
of the count, depending on the correlation. Eor ex-
ample , the start of the era cycle on August 11 (or 13),
3114 BCE, corresponds to a solar zenith passage
day at some latitude in the Maya region, and De-
cember 21,2012 CE, at the completion (in the GMT
correlation) is, of course, the winter solstice. Also
approximately at this time, the Sun will be crossing
the galactic plane and so-called Dark Rift near the
coordinates for the galactic center, although the latter
could not possibly have been known to the ancients
as we understand them in academic Maya studies.
Is this coincidence, or could these particular astro-
nomical aspects have been designed into the Long
Count when it was created more than 2,000 years
ago by the Maya or by some other non-Maya (pos-
sibly proto-Mixe-Zoquean-speaking) Mesoamerican
people? And if so, why would these phenomena have
been of significance to them? At that early time,
could those temporal architects of the whole com-
plex calendar, including the Long Count, have had
sufficiently accurate knowledge of the lengths of the
solar (tropical) and sidereal years? Did they have
any knowledge of the "precession of the equinoxes"
and a system of "zodiacal" asterisms? How precise
were their planetary and lunar ephemerides? If not
then, did the Maya and others of the Late Classic
Period, a millennium later, have a more advanced
astronomical record and practice, including a rea-
sonable knowledge of precession? These questions
have been addressed by previous scholars, but the
time is particularly ripe now for a serious process of
reassessment (see, e.g., Callaway; Grofe; MacLeod;
and Van Stone in this volume). Clearly, new re-
search on Maya calendar correlation and chronology
questions is critical for these investigations of Maya
astronomy, astrology, and divination and the poten-
tial interconnections with their calendar.
3. Maya and other Mesoamerican creation
mythologies derived from all relevant sources
Based on a growing corpus of new data from in-
scriptions, studies of the Maya codices, and ethno-
historical documents such as the highly syncretic
colonial Maya Books of Chilam Balam (e.g.,
Edmonson 1982; Roys 1933), research on Maya (and
Mesoamerican) cosmologies and cosmogonies (cre-
ation mythologies) is critical to understanding what
the ancients might have anticipated for the start of the
present 13 Bak'tun era cycle. What ceremonies and
rites of passage might they have envisioned for this
Maya "Genesis" more than five millennia ago? How
much can we know, based on scholarly research,
about their thinking as to what had taken place in the
mythological past more than five millennia ago at its
beginning in 3114 BCE? In addition to new research
on their cosmogonies, we must also explore all rele-
vant sources of Maya "apocalypticism," eschatology,
divination, and prophecy based on new epigraphic
sources, the codices, ethnohistorical documents such
as the Quiche Maya Popol Vuh (Christenson 2007),
and cross-cultural studies of, for example, the Aztec
Calendar Stonesthere are more than threeand
their Legend of the Suns (see, e.g., Coe 2011). It
ARCHAEOASTRONOMY
is clear that the eschatologies of the late Postclas-
sic Aztec Legend of the Suns (see, e.g.. Matos and
SoKs 2004) and the seventeenth- and eighteenth-
century Popol Vuh contributed to respected Mayanist
Michael Coe's use of such highly charged words
as "Armageddon"for catastrophic warfarewith
the present universe to be "annihilated" in the 2012
apocalypse. His publication of these dire "biblical"
interpretations for 2012 in the first (Coe 1966:149)
and all subsequent editions (Coe 2011:221) of his
influential popularization The Maya planted the
"mme" in global popular culture of a destructive
"apocalyptic" 2012 completion of the Long Count.
(Note: A calculation error in his first edition [Coe
1966:149] gave the date as "December 24, AD 2011."
The AD 2011 was corrected to 2012 in later editions.)
Is this interpretation still warranted in light of all
the current evidence? Within the scholarly commu-
nity as well as contemporary world popular culture,
there are arguments being actively debated that lend
support to such dire as well as much more benign
positive views: a world-destroying catastrophe ver-
sus the dawning of a transformational spiritual New
Age and just about everything in between. (For cur-
rent discussions of these questions, see Callaway;
Carlson; Grofe; Hoopes; MacLeod; Van Stone; and
Whitesides in this volume.)
4. The impact of the 2012 phenomenon
on contemporary Maya and other Native
American peoples
How is the growing global awareness of 2012 being
ignored or embraced by traditional Native Ameri-
can cultures and by indigenous Maya peoples in
particular? A few genuine contemporary Maya "day-
keepers" and "shamans" are becoming involved, but
it is often difficult to separate the authentic Na-
tive American responses to these external influences
from those of the ever-increasing numbers of vocal,
publicity-seeking "plastic shamans" and fraudulent,
opportunistic cult leaders that abound. A second set
of questions would ask how people of substantial
Native American and specifically Maya heritage but
who are no longer active participants in their ances-
tral indigenous culture are dealing with the onslaught
of these new ideas and belief systems surrounding
the 2012 phenomenon. Such studies would essen-
tially be ethnoastronomy and the sociology of Maya
astronomy and calendar in contemporary Native
American cultural contexts.
5. The history and process of incorporating
the ancient Maya Long Count cycle into world
popular culture to create the 2012 phenomenon,
including new "Mayanistic" religions
The study of the history and sociology of the 2012
phenomenon in world popular culture, includ-
ing the spawning of literally thousands of New
Age "Mayanist" cults, with an accompanying ex-
ponential growth of related websites and blogs, is
an appropriate direction for archaeoastronomical
and ethnoastronomical research. How and when
did knowledge of the Maya Long Count cycle and
the ending of the period of 13 Bak'tuns (around
December 21, 2012) move out of "ivory tower"
scholarly academic discussion and research into
global popular culture? How has this information
or misinformation, as the case might bederived
from an ancestral Native American culture been syn-
cretized and amalgamated with everything from the
biblical Deluge, the destruction of legendary Atlantis,
the Old Norse Ragnarok myth, and even extraterres-
trial and UFO cults? In fact, it is virtually impossible
now to find any tradition that has not been added to
the mix. Hoopes and Whitesides, in particular, have
addressed these questions in previous discussions
and manuscripts as well as in this volume.
6. The history of the rediscovery of the ancient
Maya calendar and 13 Bak'tun cycle in
Western scholarship
All knowledge of the ancient Maya Long Count
and 13 Bak'tun cycle, as well as the correlation of
their calendar with ours, had been lost to the mod-
em world until they were rediscovered by Western
scholarship beginning in the late nineteenth century.
What is the history of these discoveries in academic
Maya studies, and how were they first popularized
and introduced to the general public by scholars?
The parallel process of the decipherment of Maya
writing and the transmission of this information to
the publicoften in highly romanticized, idealized
VOLUME XXIV 2011
contextshas contributed to the creation of the pop-
ular myth of the technically advanced ancient Maya
whose "calendar was more accurate than ours." To-
day there are even groups of devotees who believe
that the Maya left the Earth in their spaceships and
are scheduled to return to Earth in 2012, led by
their leader, the legendary Quetzalcoatl/K'uk'ulkan.
There are also those among them who await this 2012
arrival as the long-overdue Messiah of the Tribes of
Israel or the "second coming" of Jesus Christ, as
prophesied in the biblical book of Revelation, writ-
ten in the first century CE by John of the Apocalypse
(Cohn 1993). Academic scholarship in a number of
different fields has contributed to the exponentially
growing 2012 phenomenon in world popular culture.
All of the authors in the present volume of Archaeo-
astronomy have addressed these questions, but
Carlson's, Hoopes's, Van Stone's, and Whitesides's
contributions are of particular relevance.
These six categories all provide natural interdis-
ciplinary research questions for archaeoastronomers
and students of astronomy in culture, and the research
will surely continue well beyond the winter solstice
2012 climax and crescendo of popular preoccupation.
Conclusions
For all of our investigations of the Maya calendar,
culture, and the 2012 phenomenon, there are a few vi-
tal caveats to bear in tnind. We have all been tempted
to say that "the Maya thought this" or "the Maya did
that." In fact, the ancient Maya thought and did a
great many things not only across time and space but
also certainly within the same polities and enclaves
of literate, educated specialists as well as within
their nonelite popular cultures. Whether we think of
them as priests or theologians, writers and scribes
or historians, astronomers and mathematicians or
astrologers and "soothsayers," these "philosophers"
thought a great many things from one day to the
next and undoubtedly disputed and debated them as
people have done in all advanced cultures over the
ages. Furthermore, almost nothing created by the
ancient Maya people remains in regard to what they
thought, imagined, dreamed about, and then perhaps
set down in writing and images. Due to a collapse of
their core civilization at the end of the Late Classic
Periodwith almost constant warfare, the ravages of
an environment hostile to organic materials, as well
as the eventual European conquestwe surely know
far less than one-millionth of what they wrote about
and recorded on perishables such as paper, wood,
and textiles.
Even the vast majority of their monumental
inscriptions and royal portraits, carved on more du-
rable media such as stone and modeled in or painted
on clay, have been destroyed, notwithstanding a few
still waiting to be discovered. We have no surviving
astronomical ephemerides or primary astronomical
tables and calculations. Today, there are only the four
known pre-Columbian Maya screen-fold "codices,"
painted on plastered bark paper, all of which are later
Postclassic ritual divinatory almanacs (Coe 2011).
They contain applied astronomy (essentially, astrol-
ogy and calendrical numerology and divination), not
the original works of observational or theoretical as-
tronomers and calendar-keepers. Clearly, we should
be conservative and take great care with all our
generalizations.
Here is good advice for anyone who is interested in
exploring these topics as a qualified amateur or pro-
fessional venturing away from his or her established
fields of expertise. Of the hundreds of "books" al-
ready published that deal with the 2012 phenomenon
by name (see Whitesides in this volume), perhaps
only six have any scholarly validity as I write this in
late 2011. The rest range from speculative pseudo-
scholarship and New Age fantasy to utter rubbish.
Caveat emptor.
References
Christenson, Allen J.
2007 Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. Univer-
sity of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
Coe, Michael D.
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2011 The Maya. 8th ed. Thames and Hudson, New York.
Cohn, Norman
1993 Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The An-
cient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. Yale University
Press, New Haven.
ARCHAEOASTRONOMY
Dresden Codex
1962 Maya Handschrifi der schsischen Landesbiblio-
thek Dresden: Codex Dresdensis. Geschichte und
Bibliographie von Helmut Deckert. Akademie-
Verlag, Berlin.
Edmonson, Munro S. (translator and annotator)
1982 The Ancient Euture of the Itza: The Book ofChilam
Balam ofTizimin. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Matos, Eduardo, and Felipe Sols
2004 The Aztec Calendar and Other Solar Monuments.
CONACULTA-INAH (Instituto Nacional de
Antropologa e Historia) and Grupo Azabache,
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Roys, Ralph L.
1933 The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. Carnegie
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Ruggles, Clive L. N. (editor)
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Thompson, J. Eric S.
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Van Stone, Mark
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1930 Cdices mayas: Reproducidos y desarrollados. La
Tipografa Nacional, Guatemala.
VOLUME XXIV 2011
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