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End of the World Averted: New Archeological Find Proves Mayan Calendar Doesn’t End

William Saturno, a Boston University archeologist, excavates a mural in a house in Xultun, massive Mayan ruins in Guatemala. The mural depicts a figure who may have been the town scribe. Excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Credit: Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic.

So much for the world ending on December 21, 2012. We’ve been saying it for years, but a new find by archaeologists confirms the Mayan calendar indeed does not end this year but keeps going, just like turning a page to a new calendar.

“It’s very clear that the 2012 date, while important as Baktun 13, was turning the page,” David Stuart, quoted by Alan Boyle on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log. “Baktun 14 was going to be coming, and Baktun 15 and Baktun 16. … The Maya calendar is going to keep going, and keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future.”

A team of archaeologists found a small room in Mayan ruins where royal scribes wrote on the walls — apparently like a blackboard — to keep track of astronomical records and details of the complex Mayan calendar. The writings date to about 1,200 years ago.

These are the oldest known astronomical tables from the Maya. They were found at the Xultun archaeological site in Guatemala’s Peten region. Scientists already knew the Mayans must have been keeping such records during that time period, but until now the oldest known examples dated from about 600 years later.

The room, about 2 meters (6-feet) square, contains walls decorated with images of a king and some other notable figures, as well as astronomical numbers and writings, the scientists said. The room had a stone roof rather than a thatched one, which may indicate the importance of the room.

Why did they write on walls, as opposed to other Mayan texts that have been found on bark paper?

The time period of the early 9th century was not a stable time for the Mayans, as there was political turmoil between the various city-states of the time, and the researchers said that perhaps the Xultun scribes wished to make a more permanent record of their data related to the calendar.

By some supposed “researchers,” Dec. 21, 2012 has been correlated to the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar, which was based on a cycle of 13 intervals known as baktuns, each lasting 144,000 days.

But the newly found writing on walls of the ancient room shows wide ranges of accumulated time, including a 17-baktun period. “There was a lot more to the Maya calendar than just 13 baktuns,” said Stuart, talking with reporters. Seventeen baktuns would stand for about 6,700 years, which is much longer than the 13-baktun cycle of 5,125 years. However, Stuart cautioned that the time notation shouldn’t be read as specifying a date that’s farther in the future than Dec. 21.

“It may just be that this is a mathematical number that’s kind of interesting,” he said. “We’re not sure what the base of the calendar is.”

William Saturno, an archaeologist at Boston University who led the team of archaeologists said many different scientists have been trying to get the word out that the end of the Maya culture’s 13-baktun Long Count calendar doesn’t signify the end of the world, but merely a turnover to the next cycle in a potentially infinite series — like going from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 on a modern calendar.

“If someone is a hard-core believer that the world is going to end in 2012, no painting is going to convince them otherwise,” he said. “The only thing that can convince them otherwise is waiting until Dec. 22, 2012 — which fortunately for all of us isn’t that far away.”

Read the team’s abstract.

Read more at Cosmic Log, ABC News, Science, National Geographic.


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Hal May 11, 2012, 7:05 PM


  • Torbjörn Larsson May 11, 2012, 7:42 PM

    I’m not sure I understand Saturno. It is really unlucky that this discovery was made last year and will prevent the hardcore crackpots to crack some more instead of ducking behind reinterpretations. That said, the new Long Count calendar turn is far in the future, so it doesn’t matter overly much.

    Also worth mentioning is that the late discovered Mayan city of Xultun was ransacked in the ’70s by grave robbers. It is purely coincidental that a belated and lackluster archaeological dig turns up something worthwhile.

    The time period of the early 9th century was not a stable time for the Mayans, as there was political turmoil between the various city-states of the time, and the researchers said that perhaps the Xultun scribes wished to make a more permanent record of their data related to the calendar.

    I like that hypothesis better than the one about the time being climatically disastrous for the city states, positing a drought that I don’t know if it is properly tested. Maybe climate was the driver for turmoil, but turmoil is a more robust proximal hypothesis.

    • GregtheThird May 14, 2012, 10:37 PM

      Threre is little doubt that a horrific military campaign fostered by extreme political upheaval was the final common pathway to the fall of Mayan civilization. But this civilization had survived numerous conflicts and protracted wars over the centuries, so one has to ask, what was different this time, such that they were not able to pick up the pieces and carry on? That is where an external pressure such as a climate catastrophe comes in. The latest hypothesis that I read and liked was unsustainable farming practices combined with a drought. A lack of resources would force populations to move, fight or die. As the region is a bit narrow as far as land mass is concerned, moving would not seem practical as there just isn’t much open space, nor horses, such as in Eurasia. The onset of the catastrophe would have had to be slow, to allow sufficent resources for warfare to remain. These cultures were accustomed to warfare, so finding a pretext for war would have been easy. The direness of the situation would have escalated things easily enough. The reason why the pieces were not picked up afterwards and the survivors carried on would be that the climate disaster would not have allowed for it. As their beliefs were often based in nature, the survivors would have believed that the gods had abandoned them, further discouraging any attempt at starting over.

  • Erwin Maulana R May 11, 2012, 9:23 PM

    Whoever spread the news that mayan calendar gonna bring it to an end is ultimate retard.

    • dwdeclare May 11, 2012, 10:57 PM

      ultimate retard…isn’t that the thing where two scantily clad men kick and slap each other in a cage with all their might?

  • Jeff Boerst May 11, 2012, 9:25 PM

    Further per your, ” yeah, right scientists…you bet.”… Consider how much of the tangible (ie: obviously ‘real’) world is based on science’s accuracy (IE: ALL OF TECHNOLOGY) vs. how much mythology of all kinds brings to the table… Is it THAT cponfusing to you?

  • William Sparrow May 11, 2012, 10:09 PM

    Why do these articles invariably bring out the conspirators and science deniers? It’s interesting that we see none of these people posting on more serious articles. Lack of knowledge perhaps?

  • dwdeclare May 11, 2012, 11:00 PM

    it seems to me this mayan colander theory has a lot of holes in it.

  • GregtheThird May 12, 2012, 3:05 AM

    LOL. Too funny. At least one scholar of the era had calculated another 4 baktuns into the future. Who knows how many more looked even further ahead. It goes to show how much of an illogical joke based on complete ignorance of even the basic facts about the time and culture this whole line of thinking is. There was no consensus and probably not even a concept about the end of the world at the time, much less any postulation as to how. It looks like they did not spot a gas giant in the heavens on some improbale elliptical orbit heading back our way now. One would hope human civilization has evolved beyond this kind of suceptibility to cult thinking manipulated by some kook/joker into mass hysteria. Then again we elect the most important leaders in he world based on the popularity of their personality rather then upon their political platforms or a proven history of administrative success. This is why learning about science and the scientific method is mandatory in schools. One would hope that those lessons trnaslate into more critical thinking and reasoningin the rest of the students lives, but apparently we have more work to do in education as well.

  • ITSRUF May 16, 2012, 2:00 AM

    It seems that at the turn of each baktun, the dominant culture in Latin America suffers the worst. Aztec, Mayan, post-classical, pre-Columbian, ect… It seems these societies suffer every 400 years. Maybe only Mexico should be worried.