New Internationalist

Is this the end of the world?

From Nostradamus to Y2K, end-of-the-world prophesies are nothing new. On Friday 21 December 2012, Central America’s Mayans find themselves at the centre of the Doomsday hype, with conspiracy theorists, New Age authors and every imaginable form of media commenting on the supposed prediction that the world will end.

However, it’s not the apocalyptic vision that Hollywood has projected onto movie-goers that Mayans anticipate. Rather, 21 December 2012 signals the dawn of a new era as a period of sun that has lasted for 5,125 years comes to a close.

According to scholars, Mayans never spoke about the end of the world, but years ago used their ‘Long Count’ calendar to mark the end of each b’ak’tun, a cycle of 144,000 days. Since the number 13 is particularly sacred for the Mayans, the completion of 13 b’ak’tuns was a significant date and they indicated it as 21.12.12. Just as your calendar will come to an end on 31 December and you will put up another one on 1 January 2013, so too the Mayans’ Long Count calendar comes to an end today and a new cycle begins.

‘Unfortunately, the world is accustomed to liking the morbid concept of the final apocalypse – these themes sell and many people have made money off this type of declaration,’ says Mayan priest Julio David Menchú. ‘But [this date] will be a new era, which will bring with it a unity between humankind and Mother Nature; she will support us and we won’t contaminate her any more.’

Dating back to 2000 BC across Mesoamerica, the Mayan civilization was one of the most important in history. Famous for their impressive knowledge of astronomy and maths, the Mayans kept what many believe to be the most accurate calendar in the world.

Through observing and noting the movement and position of the sun, they left written messages charting the change of each era, and it is with these messages that archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to uncover important dates in the sacred Mayan calendar.

‘This date [21 December] is based on inscriptions or hieroglyphics which were found in Quiriguá, Guatemala,’ says Menchú.

Close to 10 million descendants of Mayans still live in Central America and along with many Guatemalans and other people around the world they will be celebrating the important day today.

Mayans reportedly follow three types of calendars: the sacred calendar that has 260 days, the agricultural or civilian calendar that has 365 days and a 5,125 year cycle. It is this final cycle that is now coming to a close.

Ancient Mayan sites are at the centre of celebrations on 21 December 2012, with ritual re-enactments, conferences and sound-and-light shows taking place at ruins throughout the country. However, many of these celebrations have been organized by the government as an opportunity to attract tourists, which has upset the country’s Mayans. They have accused the government of cashing in on their culture and hijacking their event.

‘It’s irresponsible of the state and the Tourism Board,’ says Mayan Nobel Peace prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum. ‘They don’t know what they’re doing; it’s just becoming commercialized and it makes me sad.’

So, while it looks as though another end-of-the-world prophecy will pass us by, it won’t do so without stirring up yet more tension between the Guatemalan government and the Mayan community.

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About the author

Anna-Claire Bevan a New Internationalist contributor

Anna-Claire Bevan is a freelance journalist currently based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines both in Guatemala and back home in the UK. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of international media coverage that this area of the world receives.

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