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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.

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Their demise evokes a sense of mystery, which helped the idea germinate that the Mayas held ancient wisdom. They left a highly sophisticated civilization, says University of Kansas Maya scholar John Hoopes, who has spent a decade uncovering the origins of the end-of-the-world prophecy, but very little of Maya writing, for example, could be deciphered until the 1970s.

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“It opened up the door to lots of speculation,” Dr. Hoopes says. Even after hieroglyphic writing was deciphered on the four surviving pre-Hispanic codices, as well as carved on stone monuments, incised on jade jewelry, and painted on beautiful ceramic vessels, myths have persisted.

It was not just science fiction writers and New Agers fascinated by the concept of the end of the world. The December 2012 date arose from traditional readings of the Maya “Long Count” calendar of cycles of 13 intervals, or “bak'tuns,” each of which lasted 144,000 days. Recently discovered murals at Xultun, Guatemala by Boston University archeologists and texts at nearby Palenque suggest that the current cycle of bak’tuns may not end with the 13th but the 20th, which is not until AD 4772, more than 2,500 years from now.

And nowhere was it said that the end of the 13th bak'tun meant the end of the world anyway; it simply signified the end of a period of time, perhaps comparable to moving from 1999 to a new century in 2000.

“Since the time of Columbus, there has been talk of the end of the world. However, it is a European introduction based on Christian beliefs, not an ancient, indigenous Maya prophecy,” says Hoopes.

'Build bigger and bigger'

New research is not the only force that dismisses an “apocalypse.” Mayas in Frontera Corozal say this December might represent an important change of era for their ancestors, but the now deeply-Christian community discounts that they predicted the world's end.

“No one knows when the world is going to end,” says Sandra Lopez Guzman, a waitress.

“Only God knows,” adds Mayra Cortes.

They have been banking, however, on an end-of-the-world craze as a boost in tourism. The Mexican government launched a “Maya World” campaign this year to draw tourists in Mexico and from the US, Europe, and Asia to the five southeastern-most states that hold dozens of Maya ruins.

In Yaxchilan, tour guide Juan Arcos says he hasn't seen a boost either, just a few tourists from Europe insistent about the world's impending doom. Mr. Arcos says he wishes that they, as well as the residents of his own community, were more focused on the past, where there is an environmental lesson to learn, he says. “They ruined their forests to build bigger, and bigger temples,” he says.

Frontera Corozal sits on the edges of the Lacandon Jungle, one of the most biodiverse swaths of rainforest in the region. But only 10 percent of the original forest remains, threatened by clearing and population growth. Mr. Centeño, the tour guide, says residents have little environmental education, and he and Mr. Arcos are trying to instill a sense of consciousness in children.

They work at a micro level, leading garbage collection programs around town or cleaning up natural springs and the banks of the river. They have plans to build a center to promote their language, Ch'ol, and their ancient customs, to help residents become better stewards of their land, especially the community's youths. “Children are easier to mold, they aren't so stubborn in their ways,” says Centeño.

Parallels?

Most might not connect the dots between the Maya demise and the mythology surrounding their apocalyptic predictions: They are two separate things. But Hoopes says they are linked by the idea that the "end of the world" is about human struggle. The myth helps humans better understand their motivations and the consequences of actions, he says.

“When we make up myths they are usually to help us accomplish something ourselves, myths always have a purpose,” Hoopes says. “The myths being made up about the Mayas are not about the Mayas, they are about us, helping us to make the right decisions.”

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