Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Humanities

                                              Should We Fear
                                                                   Thomas H. Wilson

For the first time in the 13.75 billion-year history of the universe; for the first time in the 4.54 billion-year existence of the earth; and for the first time in the 5,125 years of the ancient Maya calendar, the Maya Long Count will complete a major cycle on December 21, 2012. Doomsday prognosticators predict the cataclysmic end of the world. Where did this idea come from? Should we fear this event?

                                              The North Acropolis, Tikal. Early Classic, AD 300-600.

Maya Origins: The Popul Vuh

All cultures, our own included, have origin stories. For those in the Christian tradition, the Genesis account explains how we got here: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….” For the ancient Maya, the document that perhaps best explains Maya origins is the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya, who have lived for centuries in the western highlands of Guatemala. The Popul Vuh was copied in the mid-sixteenth century in the Quiché Maya language in Spanish script. In the beginning, the manuscript relates, “All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky” (from the translation by Allen J. Christenson, 2007).

After the creation of the earth, the mountains and the valleys, there were four worldly realms. The gods first created the animals, but because they were unable to worship the divinities they were relegated to the wilds and made to serve. Next the divine couple made mud people, but these lacked substance and fell apart. The third creation was effigies of carved wood. Alas, the effigies, which looked just like people, nevertheless “still did not possess their hearts nor their minds.” They did not remember their makers: “They walked without purpose.” The effigies were destroyed by flood. Finally, after many tests, sacrifice and resurrection, the defeat of the lords of the underworld and the triumph of good over evil, the hero twins prevail and the current world of humans is established.

Maya Origins: The Scientific Perspective

 Modern science often complements or contradicts such origin stories, or at least offers different perspectives. Archaeologists study the material remains of previous cultures to deduce past ways of life, and use scientific methods to date the subjects of study.

                                  Tikal Temple I, funerary monument of king who ruled AD 682-734.

In regard to Maya origins, the archaeological evidence indicates that the first hunters and gatherers arrived in the Maya area of Guatemala, the Yucatán Peninsula and Chiapas in Mexico, and western Honduras about eleven thousand years ago. After about 2000 BC, small farming communities arose in the area, the farmers basing settled life on the Mesoamerican trilogy of maize, beans and squash.

To the northwest, in the Gulf Coast lowlands of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mesoamerica’s first civilization, the Olmec, rose and fell (c. 1500-600 BC) and imprinted its influence on all subsequent high cultures in Mexico and Central America. By the Late Preclassic (400 BC-AD 100) in the Maya area, city states arose with many of the characteristics that later defined Classic Maya civilization (AD 300-900). 4 Ahau, 8 Cumku Quiriguá Stila C. referring to the zero day of August 11, 3114 BC.

The Maya Long Count is a date in the Maya Long Count, the end of a great cycle of time. It corresponds to Friday, December 21, 2012 of the current era in the Western way of counting time. Each of the numbers in the sequence represents a Maya concept of time. The last number on the right is the count of kin, or days.

In ascending order, the registers record the following spans of time:
20 kins = 1 uninal (20 days)
18 uninals = 1 tun (360 days)
20 tuns = 1 katun (7,200 days, c. 19.7 years)
20 katuns = 1 baktun (144,000 days, 394.25 years)

The date therefore records 13 completed cycles of 144,000 days, or 1,872,000 days since the beginning of the Maya Long Count, or about 5,125 years since the beginning of Maya time (, or the previous period ending on August 11, 3114 BC.

The Maya were accomplished mathematicians and astronomers, but it is unlikely that any Maya were around in a form that we would recognize in 3114 BC. The earliest Long Count dates of which we know occur on the peripheries of the Maya homeland, in the Olmec area to the northwest and in highland Guatemala. These early dates fall between 36 BC to AD 156, or to in the Long Count. The earliest clearly Maya Long Count date is (AD 292) from Stela 29 at Tikal, Guatemala. It appears that functional application of the Long Count began in the 7th baktun, sometime in the second half of the first millennium BC. The much earlier zero date, the equivalent of 3114 BC, perhaps referred to something in Maya history or mythology.

Maya Positional Mathematics

The Maya developed a positional, vigesimal numeration system. The Maya could write any number using only three symbols. A dot stands for one and two dots for two, until the count reaches five, when the symbol becomes a bar. Twelve, therefore, is two bars and two dots. The third symbol, somewhat resembling a shell, represented

 Bar and Dot Numbers 1-19, with sign for zero. From The Ancient Maya by Sylvanus Morley and George Brainerd, 1956.

nullity or zero. Independently discovering the concept and notation of zero is an intellectual accomplishment of considerable significance. Ancient Maya mathematics were vertically positional. A dot in the lowest position is one, but one position up the dot represents 20. Similarly, a bar in the lowest position is five, but one step up it is 100 (5 x 20). Glyphs may also represent numbers up to 20. This system allowed the Maya to conduct mathematical processes, calculate, write dates, record astronomical observations, and engage in other analytical functions.
The Calendar Round

The ancient Maya developed intercalating systems of reckoning time. One system consisted of the continuing intersection of twenty named days with 13 numbers to create a 260 day cycle, called the Tzolkin calendar or Sacred Round. 4 Ahau is such a numbered, named day. Simultaneously, the Maya calculated a 365 day vague year, consisting of 18 months of 20 days (360 days) and five Uayeb days, to create a cycle approximating a solar year.

 The Calendar Round, from A Forest of Kings, by Linda Schele and David Freidel, after National Geographic December 1975.

8 Cumku is an example of a Haab date, which is what the vague year is called. When the Sacred Round and the Haab year intersect at the date 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, the two systems engaging each other will not return to a 4 Ahau 8 Cumku until 18,980 days or 52 years have passed, the famous Mesoamerican Calendar Round.

The Maya inhabited a world of gods and spirits, highly interwoven with everyday life. Plant and animal life were imbued with spirits, and some, like the jaguar, were worshipped. So it was with time. Each day and date had religious or astrological meaning. Each also had a position in the lunar cycle, and each day was governed by a Lord of the Night. To propitiate the gods required not only worship but ritual, and often sacrifice. Sometimes this was at the community level, when leaders or priests might sacrifice captives taken in war from neighboring communities. Leaders and priests would also perform painful bloodletting rituals on themselves for the gods and for the good of the community. The very passage of time for the Maya brought new religious associations, responsibilities, and auguries.
Lintel 24, Yaxchilán. The ruler, Shield Jaguar, holds a torch over his consort, Lady Xoc, who performs bloodletting ritual, pulling the barbed cord through her tongue, on 5 Eb 15 Moc, October 28, 709.

The Katun Prophecies of the Books of Chilam Balam
The end of Classic Maya civilization is traditionally tied to the end of erecting dated stele in the southern Maya lowlands. This terminal date was, AD 889, when the practice ceased at Uaxactún and other sites in the central Peten. Following the collapse of the Classic Maya in the south, a vigorous new civilization arose around the site of Chichén Itzá in Yucatan, lasting until around 1200. Meanwhile, the local Maya lost use of the Long Count, but used abbreviated calendrical forms. One aspect of this was the Katun Count, which kept track of the time periods of just under 20 years each. The numbered katuns descended in this way: Katun 13 Ahau, 11 Ahau, 9, 7, and so on until the countdown started over. These are recorded in the Books of Chilam Balam (sometimes translated as Jaguar Soothsayer). The books present both chronicle, semi-historical narratives linked to the katun counts, and prophesy based on the historical information.

We are in Katun 4 Ahau, which will end on December 21. From the chronicles, “4 Ahau was the katun when their souls cried out! . . . There is mourning for water; there is mourning for bread. . . . Blood-vomit (pestilence?) is the charge of the katun.” That doesn’t sound too good. It is a time best left behind. To end on a happier note, in Katun 4 Ahau “The quetzal shall come, the green bird shall come.” Perhaps a little relief is at hand. If we survive December 21, maybe Katun 2 Ahau will be kinder.

The Basis of Doomsday Prophesy

Two lines of thought seem to underlie the doomsday prophesies surrounding The first is inherent in the Long Count itself. The completion of thirteen baktuns is a considerable milestone, but is it the end of time? Just as in our calendricsystem, the Maya too could project any date into the past or future that they wished. They did it only a handful of times, but such dates do occur. Also, the Maya mathematical system is vigesimal, base twenty, and an argument can be made that the end of time might be instead of That would stave off doomsday until the Ides of October, 4772. Whew!

The second suggestion of destruction arises from the Dresden Codex. At the time of the conquest, the Maya possessed many books written in glyphic texts painted in polychrome on a lime wash over a flattened and cured bark paper. The Spanish priests destroyed untold numbers of these books, one of the greatest acts of wanton intellectual destruction by the intolerant ever enacted. As Bishop Landa wrote of the action in 1562, “we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”

Only three, perhaps four, well-authenticated Maya codices survive. Of these, the Dresden Codex is of paramount importance. It contains information on lunar and Venus cycles, eclipses, almanacs, astrology and ritual. Among these is page 74, which shows the great saurian god Itzamná (Itzam Na, Iguana House) flooding the earth, while God L holds darts. The idea of the final destruction of the world by water occurs in several Mesoamerican traditions. Itzamná, however, was also a giver of rain, necessary for life and sustenance. Illustrating Itzamná with water could be positive or negative.

Dresden Codex, page 74. Water flows from the mouth of Itzamná, the great saurian deity, with sky signs on his body. The goddess Ix Chel pours liquid out of a jar, and God L squats with darts.

Michael Coe, in his Breaking the Maya Code (1992:276), quotes the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin (Itzam Cab Ain is a terrestrial aspect of Itzamná):

   Then occurs
                                                                          The great flooding of the Earth
                                                                    Then arises
                                                                          The great Itzam Cab Ain.
                                                                    The ending of the word,
                                                                           The fold of the Katun:
                                                                    That is a flood
                                                                            Which will be the ending of
                                                                             the word of the Katun.

Should we fear

Clearly, the Maya Long Count, and indeed the full Maya calendar, can be extended from now on, and it is somewhat unclear whether the Maya themselves thought the world would end or the calendar would simply keep going or perhaps tick over to zero again. Whatever happens the next day, reaching the milestone would be a major event for the ancient Maya.

As far as we know, the earth has rotated and the sun has “come up” every day in the 4.5 billion years of the earth’s existence. Experience suggests the earth will still be revolving on December 22, 2012, or 5 Imix 9 Cumku. Although human-caused climate change is rapidly causing the glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise, worldwide floods will not occur by December 2012. By happenstance or divine guidance, maybe the ancient Maya were onto something. Even if the world as we know it survives December 21, nevertheless humankind now faces substantial challenges that we ignore at our peril.

We have a few months to prepare for As it happens, December 21 is also the winter solstice, which can only compound the angst. Assembling friends for a nice social event to discuss the end of the world might be a stimulating way to mark the event. Perhaps hard hats or water wings are in order, just in case. Personally, I do not plan to cash out my retirement funds and indulge all my whims before December 21. To each her own. I know of no serious scientist who believes a whit in the doomsday scenario. It irritates most of them. My thanks to the lunatic fringe, who gave me a subject for this essay.

The larger message is the great loss of the magnificent belief systems of the ancient Maya. We can study, understand and appreciate these ancient worlds, but we cannot inhabit them. No reconstruction brings them back. Perhaps an essence of the humanities, indeed a characteristic of being human, is not only the capacity but seemingly the need to understand the thoughts and ways of others. We make ourselves better for it.

Thomas H. Wilson is Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History and Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council.  (Born 7 Men 18 Pop, Governed by the Second Lord of the Night)


  1. The "lunatic fringe". After reading that I won't read anything you say again. You are just as close minded as the people you called "intolerant". Once science can answer every question 100% feel free to point fingers and laugh. Until then remember that you where the "
    lunatic fringe" only a few hundred years ago. Thanks for showing how intolerant you can be about things you can't answer but only guess at. No I don't think the world will end, but I don't insult people for not being like me. Sad that it came from someone being paid by tax dollars from a city owned operation. I will visit other museums from now on. I don't support blind trust in arrogance.

  2. Janet Ulich, AZDecember 06, 2012

    Anonymous... You have taken the author's use of the phrase "lunatic fringe" completely out of context. He isn't making fun of anyone, nor is he calling anyone intolerant, pointing fingers or laughing. Where are you even getting that from? He stated the opinions of other scientists he has encountered, and thanked the people who society (not he) has labeled as "lunatic fringe" for existing, and believing in something other than societal norms. Please take your "blind rage for the sake of having something to be angry about" goggles off and read the article again with a clear head and an open mind. You are reading into, misinterpreting, and being overly sensitive to an argument that doesn't even exist. Read the larger message, and stop being that which you accuse others of being. Careful, your self-righteous, indignant, arrogance is showing.