From ANNALEE NEWITZ
There are two things I am pissed about. One, the new age dumbasses who think that the ancient Maya predicted the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012. And two, the people who revel in debunking these predictions based on the logic that all doomsday prophesies are unscientific. Because here is the thing. The issue is not religion vs. science. The issue is historical and cultural. The Maya did not, in fact, ever predict an apocalypse. I’m cool with people believing in some ancient mystical whatever if that makes them happy. But mistakenly attributing a belief to a culture you know zip about, and then getting all googly-eyed about how we’re in a super mystical time? No. That shit needs to stop right now.
The ancient Maya civilization was quite advanced scientifically and culturally. One example of this can be found in their elaborate calendar systems, which were mathematically precise and incredibly accurate for hundreds of years after their civilization fell. Their scholars were so good at designing calendars based on the motion of the sun, moon and stars that they were actually able to create a calendar over a millenium ago that stretched up into 2012. But then you know what? They thought to themselves, hey, we’ll just stop here. If we’re around in 1,000 years, we’ll deal with extending this calendar past 2012. You can read an excellent and far less off-the-cuff account of the Maya calendar in Charles C. Mann’s book 1491.
To put the Maya’s accomplishment in perspective, the people who worked on one of the first widely-used computer operating systems, UNIX, designed a calendar function for their system that only lasts until the year 2038. And they were writing UNIX in the 1970s. So the Maya were planning ahead in a way that’s fairly unusual, even for a scientifically-minded bunch.
So how did this idea come about that the Maya had predicted a doomsday for December 21, 2012? Most likely some of the misunderstandings originated with incorrect translations of Maya calendar notes by famed archaeologist Sylvanus Morley in the mid-20th century. He noted at one point that a doomsday was predicted at the end of the current “long cycle” in the Maya calendar — which is the calendar that some say ends December 21 (though scholars debate whether that date is even accurate). Since Morley’s day, however, better translations have emerged. It is now widely accepted among scholars of Maya history and culture — as well as the Maya descendants themselves — that there was no widespread belief in a 2012 apocalypse among the ancient Maya.
Indeed, the whole notion of an apocalypse is much more closely associated with Christian beliefs, which is why it’s not too surprising that all the freakouts over the Maya apocalypse are rooted in Christian-dominated cultures. Like North America, say. New age gurus started trumpeting the Maya apocalypse fairly recently, no doubt spurred on in part by Daniel Pinchbeck’s popular but completely logic-free account in 2012: The Return of Quetzelcoatl. There is nothing more North American than mixing pseudo-Christianity and mostly fake Native American belief systems into a giant awful mush and selling them as truth.
South and Central America are Christian dominated today too, of course. But the 2012 new age myth never took hold in these regions, perhaps because people there are more acquainted with the actual history of the Maya. Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to cash in on the whacked out ideas of a bunch of people from up north.
CNN published a feature on all the hotel package options in Mexico and Central America for apocalypse tourists, so there’s no denying that there are financial gains to be made from our ignorance. Guatemalan groups who trace their ancestry back to the Maya have protested this “twisting” of Maya myths for tourism, but most local governments welcome the influx of North American money — even if it’s the result of a complete misinterpretation of indigenous traditions.
I guess it’s nice that people down south can get a little cash out of all this cultural appropriation, but it would be better for all of us if we could just enjoy the apocalypse as a thrilling piece of fiction. Because that’s what the Maya 2012 doomsday is — a piece of fiction, based on a mistranslation, that has metastasized into an unhealthy cultural fixation. It’s unhealthy because gurus and bogus mystics want to hang their story on a fake representation of an actual culture. Unlike the people who make the TV show The Walking Dead, for example, who hang their story on pure fiction and therefore don’t mangle anybody else’s history and traditions out of ignorance and (let’s face it) fame-seeking avarice.
That’s right — I’m saying there is a real history to the Maya civilization, and respecting that is part of having a rational worldview. If you want to adopt Maya beliefs as your own, fine. But why don’t you fucking study Maya beliefs then, instead of reading a bunch of North American new age bibbledy-babble about it? Or go watch The Walking Dead, or The Road, or freakin 2012, and enjoy your fantasy doomsday.