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Is 2012 the end of the world?

According to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, December 21, 2012 is the "end of days". Why this day of all others and on what basis are such predictions made?

This article will explain how the Mayan "Long Count" calendar works and what the significance of that day is within the calendar.

How the Long Count calendar works

Chicken Itza (Wikimedia)

The Mayans measured time using called a system called the "Long Count" calendar. 20 days or k'in were counted as one uinal. 18 uinals were counted as one tun. 20 tuns were counted as one k'atun. 20 katuns made one b'ak'tun. So with the exception of tuns, everything is counted in groups of 20.

This sum of days is 20 * 18 * 20 * 20 or 144000 days in total. In the Long Count, a year is 360 days (20 * 18) as opposed to the solar count of 365 days (and change) that we use in modern times.

To turn through one b'ak'tun in the Mayan calendar requires 144000 days, or approximately 394.3 years.

Scholars express Mayan dates with a dot notation, as follows:

Date Unit Days Years 1 k'in 1 1/365 1 uinal = 20 k'in 20 0.055 1 tun = 18 uinal 360 0.986 1 k'atun = 20 tun 7,200 19.71 1 b'ak'tun = 20 k'atun 144,000 394.3

21 December 2012

The date from which counting began is not definite but is generally regarded to be August 11, 3114BC as we might measure it using the Julian calendar.

Since there are 144000 days between each rollover of the b'ak'tun, we can plot a table of what date each rollover occurs.

Mayan Date Julian Date August 11, 3114 BCE November 13, 2720 BCE February 16, 2325 BCE May 21, 1931 BCE August 23, 1537 BCE November 26, 1143 BCE February 28, 748 BCE June 3, 354 BCE September 5, 41 CE December 9, 435 March 13, 830 June 15, 1224 September 18, 1618 December 21, 2012 March 26, 2407 June 28, 2801 October 1, 3195 January 3, 3590 April 7, 3984 July 11, 4378 October 13, 4772

The last rollover was in 1618 and the next is on December 21, 2012. At the point of the rollover, the most significant digit increments by one and the less significant digits reset back to 0. So December 20, 2012 is and the next day is The day after that is and so on.

Some claim that at 13 the calendar rolls back to but this is not supported by the way the rest of the calendar works which with the exception of tun is vigesimal (units of 20). It is likely that tuns only use 18 to more closely align with the solar year.

The Mayans were also known to have used higher cycles such as piktun, kalabtun, kinichiltun and alautun and it stands to reason that they could count more or less for ever if they so desired.

Evidence for the "end of days"

Essentially there is no historical record describing an "end of days" to coincide with this date. There have been numerous interpretations and Doomsday theories which are best summarised here but none which are supported by the historical evidence.

It is perhaps only because the calendar has been adopted by various New Age concerns such as numerology that interest exists at all and as the end of 2012 approaches, the media has added fuel to the fire and stirred up a frenzy of interest.

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We'll see... but if previous numerological non-events are anything to go by there will still be one or two people who die directly as a result of this date hype.


So the facts are that scholars believe date merely represents a roll over to and little else. Even the date itself involves guesswork since the base date was derived from events that can be correlated with other records.

Every standard for measurement has values which appear "significant" but which are really just arbitrary artifacts of the counting system - time goes from 11:59 to 00:00, the year 1999 becomes the year 2000 and so on. There is no reason to believe there is any significance whatsoever with the Mayan calendar ticking over.

So while it is attractive to think the date is portentious and the "end of days", it is most likely going to be much like any other, except of course in the build up to it when it will be source of countless cheap stories in the press.