Will the world really end in 2012?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Jane, did you take time the other day to watch all of the inauguration ceremonies and television footage?

Jane McGrath: I was so busy, I didn't get a chance, but I've been watching it on YouTube and that.

Candace Gibson: Okay, so you followed up on all the stories, the fashion, the speeches, the bloopers, etcetera.

Jane McGrath: Oh, yeah. Of course. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: It was fun in the How Stuff Works office because a couple of us dropped our work and we went to the Common Room and watched the ceremony on TV. And it was special, not just because the Obama girls looked adorable in their brightly colored clothes and because Rick Warren pronounced their names so fancifully - I have to quote him, "Malia and Sasha." We couldn't get enough. We've been saying it around the office ever since then. But it was great to be in a room with intelligent people watching such a historic event.

Jane McGrath: I'll bet. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: And I was thinking how utterly, incredibly, tragically sad that it is the last inauguration we will ever see because the world will end in 2012.

Jane McGrath: Oh, my goodness.

Candace Gibson: I know. Jane's a little bit on edge. I don't necessarily ascribe to that belief, I was just trying to get everybody worked up and excited for our podcast today, which is about the Mayan calendar. And if you are at all familiar with the Mayan calendar, you may know that there's a prophecy that the world will end on December 21, 2012.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And some people are a little on edge about this idea. Although, it doesn't have that much history in terms of what the Mayans actually believe, which is interesting?

Candace Gibson: Right. I think a lot of the fuss can be attributed to doomsday speakers.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, those are always popular.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. Because they're fun to hear about and they're fun to think about, sort of!

Jane McGrath: Sure. The end of the world is always fun.

Candace Gibson: The end of the world. We actually got a listener email about the Mayan calendar. And I'm not quite sure if our friend Malina is a doomsday believer, or if she just wanted to hear more of the story behind it. But she wrote to us, "Hi. I'd like to know what the Mayans really say about this 2012 end of days. I have heard many interpretations, most of which I think are geared at selling books (smart girl) and doomsday gear. I'd like to know how accurate were their predictions and why this calendar was so important to them?

Jane McGrath: So, Malina, here's the answer. And we will start by cracking the code behind the Mayan calendar.

Candace Gibson: And to understand this, we have to get a little context about the Mayan civilization in general, I guess. Just to let you know, the Mayans - the whole empire was incredibly sophisticated. They existed around parts of what is now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Southern Mexico as well. And they were a very sophisticated culture. They actually were one of the first Mesoamericans, the people in that Central American area, to start writing at all. And the preclassic period, which went up to - between 2,000 BC and 300 AD. And you can actually divide the Mayan civilization into three distinct periods - the formative preclassic, then the classic followed. And that ran from about 300-900. And the post-classic, from 900-1400! And around that time, we see the Mayan civilization reaching a bitter end when the Spanish Inquisition comes in and starts phasing the culture out.

Jane McGrath: And scholars are bit baffled by what happened at the end of the classic period. It's interesting - they were incredibly sophisticated, but there was a time, about 900 AD, where they reached a sharp decline in their civilization. They left cities and temples abandoned. It was very odd and scholars disagree about what caused this, whether it was exhausting the food supply or there were wars among peoples. And you're right, Candace, the Spanish arrived in about the late 1400s. And that ended the period of the Mayan empire in general.

Candace Gibson: We know a lot about Mayan history because these were people who left written records. They had a system of hieroglyphics that they used for recording myths, history, and other governmental decrees, things like this. They actually had a primitive type of book and paper that were bound together, as well as stele, which were large freestanding stone monuments - almost like an obelisque, really - that they would carve things into. And in addition to hieroglyphics, they also had logo graphics and a phonetic syllabic alphabet. So they had three ways of recording their history.

Jane McGrath: And a lot of their writings had to do with time in general. They were very focused, maybe preoccupied with the idea of time. And that's where we get the idea of how they came up with all the different calendars that they did.

Candace Gibson: Right. And calendars were important because they wanted to mark the passing of time. They looked to heavenly bodies in the sky to interpret the behavior, moods, and whims of their gods. And many of their actions, whether it was a ceremony for planting or for the economy or for accounting procedures, were based on gods' behavior. And almost like today, how some people ascribe to astrology to determine how a person's personality may be influenced by their birth date, the Mayans used their calendar for similar purposes.

Jane McGrath: And numbers themselves held particular importance. Particular ones - like the number 13 for instance - held religious connotations which represented levels of heaven where sacred lords ruled the earth. So the number 13 is pretty important, and that applies over to the first calendar, which is called the Tzolkin calendar.

Candace Gibson: And we should mention, too, there are all manner of pronunciations as far as we could tell in our research for the different increments of times and names of the Mayan calendar. So we're assuming that there are some scholarly variations on pronunciation, but we are going to go with the most popular. And to kick it off, like Jane said, the Tzolkin calendar - also called the sacred round calendar - let's break this down. And this is going to get a little bit painstaking. So if you're near a computer, it might be helpful if you could go to the How Stuff Works website and pull up the article on how the Mayan calendar works.

Jane McGrath: That's right. It'll be easier to visualize. We have a nice animation on the site that will let you go through the Tzolkin calendar.

Candace Gibson: Okay. So the basics! The Tzolkin calendar is divided into 260 days.

Jane McGrath: And this number is significant in and of itself. Scholars disagree, but it might signify the length of pregnancy. But more than likely, it probably signified the time of a corn crop.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So from here, 260 days are comprised of 20 different day names and 13 different numbers. So imagine two circles. And around the outer larger circle we have the 20-day names listed. And each one is represented by a glyph. Then on the inside circle, it interlocks with 13 different numbers. So as the inner circle turns, a number matches up with a glyph of a day name. And if you're good at math or you have a calculator nearby you may have figured out that 260 days is derived from the fact that 20 day names times 13 numbers equals 260.

Jane McGrath: So it goes through the cycles of the days and the numbers together. And as you know, 13 is less than 20. So once it got through the 13 numbers, it would go back to the first number, but continue on in the cycle of the 14th day name!

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So it just continues rotating until you reach 260. And each combination of number and day name has a significant meaning. And the holy men and the agriculturalists of the Mayan civilization would use these numbers to predict auspicious times for ceremonies and crop planting, like we said earlier. But there was a problem with the Tzolkin calendar, and that was that it didn't measure a full solar year like the Gregorian calendar would do.

Jane McGrath: They were smart enough obviously to figure out that there were seasons and 260 days was not a solar year. And we should also mention that the Tzolkin calendar had segments of 20 days, which they called uinals. And so these segments of 20 days were particularly important and they carried over into their other calendars as well.

Candace Gibson: And this led to the Haab calendar. And this was a calendar that was based on the cycle of the sun. And uinals were the formative unit of the Haab calendar. So as Jane said, a uinal was a 20-day period. There were 18 of these 20-day periods, which equaled 360 days. Now as we know, again, 360 days does not a full solar cycle make.

Jane McGrath: That's true. But 360 is a pretty even number and I like it a lot.

Candace Gibson: So the Mayans compensated for those five extra days by making them nameless days. And they refer to those as a wayeb. And that was a single month comprised of these five days. And they thought it was a very dangerous time.

Jane McGrath: And the wayeb was a compromise between the mathematicians and the astronomers. Obviously the astronomers knew, 360 days is not a full solar year. But mathematicians loved the evenness of the number 360. So that's where they get the compromise of the wayeb.

Candace Gibson: And during this time, it was customary to pray vigilantly and celebrate the gods and beseech them for blessings on the civilization, in hopes that good tidings would be restored again.

Jane McGrath: Because during the wayeb, they believed that god left the whole earth unprotected.

Candace Gibson: But again, same old song - you'll hear this refrain a couple of times - it wasn't enough. They wanted a longer calendar.

Jane McGrath: And even though the Haab calendar is closest to our Gregorian calendar today, they did want to record more time in a single calendar for historical reasons, to keep posterity. So they came up with what's called the calendar round.

Candace Gibson: And this had 18,890 days and encompassed 52 years. But here comes that refrain again, it still wasn't long enough.

Jane McGrath: 52 years was not enough, as you said, so they wanted to make it even longer. And this is the most massive calendar I've ever heard of. It's called the long count calendar, we refer to it today as that - and it measures time in great cycles. And a great cycle spans a little over 5,125 years.

Candace Gibson: Right. So the long count calendar also has its own individual units that it is comprised of. So let's go over those. We've got one day, which is a keen; 20 days, the uinal - which we've heard before; 360 days a tun; 7,200 days, a k'atun; 144,000 days, a baktun. So we have all these different individual components going inside the long count calendar. And we see that it is very useful for measuring epochs, for giving historians something to base their civilization on and predict future civilizations going on.

Jane McGrath: It was actually a difficult task to be able to find the zero date of the great cycle. For instance, we're in a great cycle right now. And in order to figure out what date today is in the great cycle, we had to figure out what the beginning of this great cycle was. And that ended up being August 13, 3114 BC.

Candace Gibson: And we didn't just come up with that number happenstance, there was a British anthropologist named Sir Eric Thompson who wanted to reconcile these different calendars. And in order to find out when the current great cycle began, he had to match up some different events from the Spanish Inquisition that had been recorded on the Dresden Codex, which was one of the Mayan governmental records that was spared from the ravages of the Spanish Inquisition. And he took that and compared it alongside the long count calendar, as well as a Gregorian calendar, to come up with a definitive date. And like Jane said, that was August 13, 3114 BC. So we're in the middle of a great cycle.

Jane McGrath: But if you do the math, we're actually about to end that great cycle. And that's where we get the date of December 21, 2012 which will end a cycle. But it's important to note that the Mayans believe that this is not the first cycle that's ever existed. It's actually, I believe, the fourth. And so the universe, or the planet, has lived through already the ends of three cycles. So the Mayans don't necessarily believe that the world will end at the end of this fourth one.

Candace Gibson: No. And they actually think that the ending of a cycle is a wonderful time to celebrate and to appreciate the fact that the planet has made it through another great cycle.

Jane McGrath: But there is also another reason why people think this might be the end of the world, because an interesting thing is going to happen on December 21, 2012. It is a winter solstice, but that happens every year. But it's also a particular winter solstice where the sun will align with the center of our galaxy.

Candace Gibson: And that happens only every 26,000 years. So if you're like me and you're curious about what people say, you can do a Google search and pull up all number of different doomsday websites. And predictions for December 21, 2012 range from the culmination of social strife, environmental catastrophe, and war amalgamating into a giant apocalypse. And some people say that a comet or asteroid is going to impact the earth and we're all going to die, or that the magnetic field on the earth is going to change and the poles will be reversed. Or you could rent Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and get a preview of what's going to happen.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting if you look at the idea that the Mayans were actually able to predict eclipses, which is pretty sophisticated for what they knew. So you might be inclined to think, "Oh, well did they know that this crazy happenstance was going to happen on that day, too?" But most astronomers agree that they could not have known this.

Candace Gibson: Right. So all number of possibilities for December 21, 2012! And we know that this is a very hard concept to reconcile in your mind without seeing the visual aids. So we would strongly encourage you to look at the article, How the Mayan Calendar Works. And also, a question of the day that we have called, Will the world really end in 2012? And if we have spooked any of you out there, I blame Malina. But for those of you with an insatiable appetite for historical knowledge, be sure to email us your questions at podcast@howstuffworks.com.

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