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Lessons from the Maya prophecy – whether the world 'ends' or not (+video)

Instead of focusing on Maya predictions of the ‘end of the world,’ some are shifting attention to problems today that may have contributed to the Maya collapse – like environmental damage.

By Sara Miller LlanaStaff Writer / December 20, 2012

The Maya temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent and Mayan snake deity, is seen at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, in the southern Mexican state of Yucatan, in this picture.

Mauricio Marat, National Institute of Anthropology and History/REUTERS


Frontera Corozal, Mexico

Through a clearing in the jungle, visitors catch their first glimpse of the ancient Maya ruins of Yaxchilan in Mexico's southern Chiapas state. Stubborn vines have penetrated the walls of the Maya temple of the underworld. Bats hang in the cool vaulted ceiling and spiders scurry around the structure where ancient nobles once meditated and prayed to their gods.

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Here, like across the Maya civilization, abandoned cities hidden in the rainforests of Mexico and Central America stand as reminders of the collapse of one of the most sophisticated cultures of its time – one that, a thousand years later, no scholar fully understands.

And if some Maya thinkers and their acolytes are correct, the same fate could be in store for Yaxchilan's nearest town, Frontera Corozal, the rest of Mexico, and even the entire globe: They believe the Mayas predicted that the world would end this December.

Most serious thinkers dismiss the prophecy as plain wrong, a meme that has spread around the globe – today there are more than 2,000 books on the subject – with the help of New Age thinkers, science fiction writers, and misguided academics.

Despite rigorous attempts at debunking the prophecy, including recent discoveries in an overgrown jungle in Guatemala that reveals the Mayas counted thousands of years into the future beyond the much talked about Dec. 21 "cut off date," a few are still on board with the apocalyptic forecast. Some 10 percent of people surveyed worldwide earlier this year say the Maya calendar could signify the world's end in 2012, according to a poll from Ipsos Global Public Affairs, conducted for Reuters.

Indeed, most of the buzz these days surrounding “demise” is not about what happened 1,000 years ago, so much as the belief in a coming apocalypse just days away. But at least a few residents in Frontera Corozal, a border town separated from Guatemala by the Usumacinta River, are trying to shift attention to the same problems that likely contributed to the Maya collapse – such as environmental damage and greed – to provide lessons to live more sustainably today.

“The same destruction from then is happening now. We are doing it again,” says Yaxchilan tour guide Francisco Centeño, who is part of a cooperative that is running campaigns to teach children to protect the environment. “To want more homes and bigger homes, we ruin our forests, and ourselves. It is the human nature to want more and more.”


The Maya civilization dates to the Preclassic period beginning in 2000 BC, and reached its grandeur during the Classic period, from AD 250 to 900, during which the Mayas had developed the written language and became masters at calendars, counting time, and outlining astronomical systems.

Yaxchilan is nowhere near as large or significant as Tikal in today's modern Guatemala or Chichen Itza in Mexico's Yucatan. But it was among one of the most important centers of the Maya world along the Usumacinta.

Deep in the jungle, Yaxchilan is reachable by wooden boats that ply the Usumacinta River, where a crocodile suns on the banks on a recent day.

It's comprised of over some 120 buildings, but only a tenth have been excavated. The rest are buried underneath the dense forest, where visitors can spot spider and howler monkeys and toucans.

It was left abandoned after 900 AD, and like the other major Maya centers spanning Mexico to Central America, no one knows exactly why: warfare, flooding, deforestation, greed, or a combination of all.


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