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What the Mayan calendar says about 2012

300 dpi Wes Bausmith illustration of Earth portrayed as a time bomb; can be used with stories about doomsday prophecies. Los Angeles Times/MCT 2011krtnational national; krtworld world; krt; krtcampus campus; mctillustration; apocalypse; doomsday prophecy; earth; fuse; globe; la contributed bausmith; timebomb time bomb; 2011; krt2011
300 dpi Wes Bausmith illustration of Earth portrayed as a time bomb; can be used with stories about doomsday prophecies. Los Angeles Times/MCT 2011krtnational national; krtworld world; krt; krtcampus campus; mctillustration; apocalypse; doomsday prophecy; earth; fuse; globe; la contributed bausmith; timebomb time bomb; 2011; krt2011 MCT

If some interpretations of the Mayan calendar are correct, we'll all be gone next year.

Every other doomsday prediction has (obviously) come and gone, but some people think that the Maya knew something others didn't and that the world will indeed come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.

Opportunists already are trying to cash in with 2012 survival kits, T-shirts reading "Doomsday 2012" and a Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012.

A Web site devoted to the prediction, December212012.com, run by John Kehne, a Louisville-based Web developer, says, "Although this date may not necessarily mark the end of the world, it is widely believed that it may indeed mark the end of the world as we know it. ... The signs and indicators of dramatic and possibly devastating change seem to be all around us. Both ancient and modern-day observers alike have foretold the possibilities of this date, and the coming events of our solar system seem to support their theories."

The site talks about the worldwide social and political unrest, new and untreatable pandemics, unusual and unpredictable weather patterns, devastating natural disasters in unlikely places and man-made devastation leading up to this date.

"We can expect to see a number of dramatic events guiding us to our ultimate destiny in 2012."

But the site also says it is not suggesting that disaster is absolutely certain, but "conditions are right, and you should have concern for your own safety and for the safety of your family."

Speculation about the world ending in 2012 has a long pop-culture history, including the movie 2012, in which the character played by John Cusack tries to escape with his family from disasters that seem to signal the end of the world.

The notion that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world is complex, many scholars say.

First, the Maya, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America, were highly developed in mathematics and astronomy. The Mayan calendar involves a cycle of about 5,000 years, and on Dec. 21, 2012, it starts again at zero.

"Megacycles can be recorded with the 'Long Count calendar,'" said Susan Milbrath, curator of Latin American art and archaeology at the Florida Museum of National History at the University of Florida.

The calendar records mythological events in Mayan history, "many dating to before the current cycle of the calendar," Milbrath said.

"As to future dates, there were few, but one of interest is the Tortuguero Monument 6 date that does fall on the end of the current baktun cycle on Dec. 21, 2012, when the Maya calendaric 'odometer' literally flips over."

The baktun is one of the cycles or components of the Long Count calendar. It is a unit of 144,000 days.

Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy, anthropology and Native American studies at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., described "the grand odometer of Maya timekeeping," known as the Long Count, as "an accumulation of various smaller time cycles that will revert to zero, and a new cycle of 1,872,000 days (5,125.37 years) will begin."

He said the Long Count is an accounting system "consisting of 13 cycles corresponding to the levels of Maya heaven that make up a creation period of 5,127.37 seasonal years. At the end of one creation cycle, the count rolls over to the first day of the new cycle."

Milbrath and other Maya experts say the current notion of the world coming to an end developed around New Age literature, mostly dating after John Major Jenkins published a book in 1989 — and several afterward — suggesting that the date "coincided with a specific astronomical position wherein the sun was going to be seen centered in the galactic equator.

"In so doing, he suggested the Maya understood the concept of precession of the equinox and were aware of this future alignment when they developed the calendar somewhere between 100 B.C. and A.D. 200."

Milbrath said numerous books "written by self-appointed shamans/scholars" exist about how this cosmic alignment will bring on a new age or the end of the world as it is now.

In a paper that Milbrath wrote in 2007, she said the Maya purposely set the calendric odometer to roll over at the end of the baktun cycle on the winter solstice in 2012.

"The Maya must have set the baktun 'end' at the same time they back-calculated a starting point to the baktun around 3000 B.C.," she said. "We can admire the Maya for their highly developed astronomy and mathematics, but we should not attribute to them impossible feats and thereby diminish their true accomplishments."

Aveni wrote that the Maya were "obsessed with sophisticated timekeeping systems" and that "their astronomers had the capacity to predict celestial events, such as eclipses, accurately, all without telescopes or any technical devices.

"So it is no surprise that mystically minded people feel free to attribute to the ancient Maya the power to see far into the future."

In a paper published this year, John W. Hoopes, a Maya expert in the anthropology department at the University of Kansas, said there are more than 1,000 books about the 2012 phenomenon. Some studies have resulted in discarding the 2012 end-of-the-world hypothesis long ago, and some have not.

"Scholarship on the ancient Maya, academic or otherwise, has included many crackpots," he wrote.

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