Why did we think the Maya predicted the end of the world?

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In December of 2012, a craze was going through the world as everyone obsessed over the supposed “end of the world” that had been prophesied by the ancient Maya. People were stocking up, prepping for the end, and speculating with family and friends about what the future might hold for the world.

But obviously, we’re still here.

So what did we get wrong?

Credit: BizarroComics.com

What most of the world didn’t understand was how the Maya calendar functions. That’s what I want to talk about today.

So let’s break it down.

The Maya (along with most of Mesoamerica) used many different calendars to mark time, similar to how we count time in days, weeks, months, years, centuries, etc. We are only going to focus on one of their calendars today. The difference is that their system was vigesimal, meaning that it was a base-20 system.

Here’s how it was built:

1 day is called a k’in.

20 k’in form a winal. This is similar to what we would call a month.

18 winal of 20 days form a tun, which is almost equivalent to a solar year for us.

20 tun form a k’atun.

20 k’atuns form a bak’tun. This is equivalent to 144,000 k’in or days. It’s a long period of time- about 394 years.

A bak’tun was one of the largest units of time used by the Maya, and they believed that each of these “period endings” was significant, as one cycle ended and another began. There would be large ceremonies with monuments being dedicated and festivities planned that would last multiple days.

You can probably see where this is going.

December 21, 2012 was the end of the 12th bak’tun, and the beginning of the 13th. It wasn’t a prophesied “end of the world”, but it was the end of one significant period of time and the beginning of another. It’s important to remember that the Maya believed in a cyclical time, one that is not so linear as our concept of it. Therefore, things would repeat in a sort of re-creation of one bak’tun after another, reaching back to the mythical date of creation (placed at around 3114 BC).

The Maya culture bred many great astronomers and mathematicians, who calculated the movement of the universe and wrote down their observations and predictions for future movement. However, as we know now, they did not prophesy the end of the world.

For more information on the Maya calendar and more misconceptions of Mesoamerican culture, check out my free 5-Day Video Course!

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