Eleanor Harrison-Buck has spent years researching the people of
Mesoamerica -- studying the structure of their societies, and learning about
their architecture and analyzing the role of religious ideology in their
But lately, she's been spending a surprising amount of time talking about the Mayan calendar.
A mistaken idea that the Mayan calendar predicts an apocalyptic event will take place in December 2012 has taken root in popular culture, even though it's been debunked by new archaeological evidence, as well as academic experts.
Tales of a doomsday event occurring in 2012 are still running rampant in print, on television and online. The myth was also at the center of a major Hollywood film, adding more fuel to the fire.
About one in 10 Americans now reports feeling genuine anxiety about the prospect of a cataclysmic event occurring before the end of the year, according to a study conducted earlier this year.
"It is one of the first questions that comes up, not only among my students, but also among the general public and friends," said Harrison-Buck, an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of New Hampshire. "You know, I can't tell you how many reporters have called me and asked me, 'Is the world going to end?"
As the clock winds down to Dec. 21, experts on the Mayan calendar have been racing to convince people that the Mayas didn't predict an apocalypse for the end of this year. Earlier this year, archaeologists, anthropologists and others met in Mexico to discuss the implications of the myth.
The Maya calendar is a product of the 365 day solar calendar, which was shared throughout Mesoamerica. The Maya didn't develop it, according to Harrison-Buck, but they did elaborate on it. They also had a shorter ritual calendar, and the combination of the two produced a repeated cycle of 52 years, known as a "calendar round."
For calculating dates beyond this 52-year period, the Maya and other cultures across Mesoamerica used the so-called "long count" calendar. This calendar is divided into periods of 394 years, called "baktuns." The calendar fixes a given date within a period of 13 baktuns, known as the "great cycle."
Researchers believe the great cycle of 13 baktuns started in 3,114 BC, meaning the period would end on date generally accepted as Dec. 21, 2012. That date is said to be the end of the "great cycle" of 13 baktuns.
Experts say 13 was a significant number for the Mayas, and the end of that cycle would be a milestone -- but not an end.
The Maya saw time and space as a cyclical process, Harrison-Buck said. Researchers have determined this from hieroglyphics, and also from the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation story. The end of one time cycle in the long count calendar is more akin to a New Year's celebration than a doomsday, she said.
"While they didn't talk a lot about what events might accompany the end of this date, we know from period-ending celebrations in other, smaller bundles of time ... that they were certainly seen as times of destruction, but also renewal," she said.
The Mayas, whose "classic" culture of writing, astronomy and temple complexes flourished from A.D. 300 to 900, were extremely interested in future events, far beyond Dec. 21.
By contrast, apocalyptic visions have been common for more than 1,000 years in Western, Christian thinking, and are not native to Mayan thought.
People interpreting the calendar incorrectly have proposed that the Maya were privy to knowledge about impending astronomical disasters, ranging from explosive storms on the surface of the sun that could knock out power grids to a galactic alignment that could trigger a reversal in Earth's magnetic field.
"It's become a snowballing process," NASA astrobiologist David Morrison, who has been trying to debunk the Mayan calendar myth, said during a recent NASA videoconference. "It's gone viral. There's nothing logical about why these different calamities should be associated with Dec. 21, but that's the situation that we're in."
For about a decade, Morrison has been answering questions from the public at NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" webpage. In the last few years, the real science questions have been overwhelmed by questions about a 2012 doomsday.
Morrison believes there are literally millions of people who think the world will end next, including many children. Some have even said they are contemplating suicide, Morrison said.
"While it's a joke to many people and a mystery to others, there is a core of people who are truly concerned, and I think it's appropriate that we should answer these questions that are being sent to us," he said.
Some of the most convincing evidence disproving the Mayan calendar myth emerged during an archaeological dig in Guatemala earlier this year. A Boston University professor and his team found a mural painted inside a residence that includes a calendar with predictions of dates thousands of years after the end of the 13th baktun.
Fellow BU professor Curtis Runnels said the Mayan calendar myth appears to share some similarities with other great hoaxes of the past.
Runnels, an archaeology professor who teaches a course on historical myths and mysteries, recalled reading similar doomsday scenarios spelled out in newspaper stories when he was a child. He suggested that deep down, most people understand the stories are fiction, and value them only for entertainment.
"People like sensation," he explained. "They like mystery."
During NASA's videoconference last week, Andrew Fraknoi, a science educator from Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., suggested that the Mayan calendar myth has exposed one real concern facing our country in the near future: a low regard for science education.
"It's really sad that so many people are worried and writing to David Morrison," he said. "It's really sad that our schools have not taught skeptical thinking."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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