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2012 News Releases

End of the world on December 21? A myth, says Longwood expert

November 20, 2012

Dr. Walter Witschey
Dr. Walter Witschey with a silkscreen bearing a date (A.D. Jan. 24, 771) written in the Maya calendar

Some people think the Maya calendar predicts the world will end Dec. 21, 2012. Nonsense, says a Longwood University archaeologist who is an expert on ancient Mayan culture.

"The Maya never said it," said a smiling but emphatic Dr. Walter Witschey, professor of anthropology and science education. "They never forecast the end of the world, and there’s no reason to think they said this date was the end of the world."

The speculation has been prompted by the Maya Long Count calendar, a cyclic calendar of five time periods, which we write as five numbers separated by four periods. It is often compared to a car odometer. On Dec. 21, the calendar will roll over to—which, due to what Witschey and all other Maya experts insist is an erroneous interpretation, has some people worried the end of the world may be at hand.

"The date was just a marking place in their cycle," said Witschey. "On this date, the Long Count will roll over from cycle 12 to cycle 13, like our calendar rolling over from 1999 to 2000. We’re somehow captivated by these low-order zeros, and so were the Maya. It’s this phenomenon that has drawn attention to Dec. 21. It also happens to coincide with the winter solstice—which this year occurs at 6:18 a.m. on Dec. 21—so in our culture we have people with a New Age or astrology bent trying to associate all kinds of numerology and alignment phenomena with end-of-the-world forecasts and the Maya calendar.

"As for me, on Dec. 22, I expect to get up in the morning, and I’ll probably take note of the fact the Maya Long Count now reads and I’ll go on about my business."

He still might have to wait two days to see if the end of the world is really at hand. "Within the past few days, Maya calendar scholars Simon Martin and Joel Skidmore published a fascinating analysis that suggests Dec. 24 is a better match for the Maya date," said Witschey.

The date appears in only two known Maya inscriptions, Witschey said. One is at Tortuguero, a set of ancient ruins in Mexico, and the other was discovered this year at La Corona, a Maya site in Guatemala. People wonder what the Maya were saying about this date, Witschey said.

"They were not saying the world will end. In fact, there is evidence this five-place number is shorthand—like the way we say ’12 for 2012—for a number that may be considerably bigger, eight positions or even more, capable of counting millions of years. It appears they were saying a very important king, who was living when the inscription was written, was so important that he would still be worshiped in That’s like saying 1,000 years from now, George Washington will still be so important that we’ll celebrate him in the year 3,000. They said nothing about end of days, nothing about 13 being the final cycle, nothing about apocalypse, nothing about astrological predictions of any sort."

Just as the modern calendar is built on a mythological date—the birth of Jesus as established by Christianity—so, too, the Maya Long Count calendar is based on a mythological date, Witschey said.

"If you count the Maya Long Count backward to five zeros, you get to Aug. 11 of 3,114 B.C. in our calendar. There were no Maya around in 3,114 B.C. or for another 2,000 years, so their calendar also has a mythological starting date; it picks up in midstream. We are matching dates in two calendars—both of which have arbitrary starting points—on Dec. 21, 2012. That day has no intrinsic significance."

The Long Count, which can keep track of dates over thousands of years, probably came into use shortly before 1 A.D. in our calendar, said Witschey. It was used extensively between about 250 and 900 A.D., then fell into disuse.

Witschey got "hooked" on the Maya culture in 1952, has traveled more than 20 times to the Maya area and since 1996 has maintained an electronic atlas of known Maya archaeological sites—about 6,200 at last count. Last year he and his partner on the project, Dr. Clifford Brown, associate professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University, published the book Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica. Before joining the Longwood faculty in 2007, Witschey directed the Science Museum of Virginia for 15 years, and he is a past president of the Virginia Academy of Science.