How the Brain Works ~ A Treatise by Namron Soar ~ Oh-1 Digital Press ~ Monday October 24th 2011 ~ Chapter Twelve ~ 2012 and The Maya ~ ID 11765
Re: 2012 here’s what John Mink of CyArk has to say in a series of 2009 blogs:
I bet you’ve seen the posters - Aerial views of major cities crushed by a variety of natural disasters, giant waves rushing over the highest peaks of the Himalayas, and the headline "We Were Warned" above an enormous number 2012 written in a silver font that is both metallic and stone-like at the same time. It all looks pretty exciting (who doesn’t get a vicarious thrill out of having a Godzilla’s eye-view of our civilization’s demise?), but what exactly is going on here? Well, 2012 is a flashy, big-budget disaster movie due to be released on November 13, 2009; according to a wave of advance publicity materials the film’s premise focuses on a small band of humans struggling to survive in the aftermath of an enormous global apocalypse. A website designed around a fictional organization, The Institute for Human Continuity details the efforts of a convincing-looking group of concerned scientists, business people, and world leaders to inform the public about the upcoming cataclysm ("confirmed with 94% certainty") and to "...develop plans to guarantee the survival of the human race" (both quotes from the IHC website). While films dealing with the looming threat of global apocalypse have been quite common and popular since the 1950s, the twist with 2012 is that it plays to questions surrounding a previously-obscure phenomenon that is beginning to loom large in the public imagination: What is the significance of the upcoming year that bears its namesake?
Sources of Confusion
In the much-studied (but not easily-understood) Long Count calendar from the ancient Maya culture of Central America, the Gregorian calendar date of December 21st (or possibly 23rd) in 2012 CE correlates to 4 Ahau 3 Kank’in, the ending of a 5125-year period of 13 B’ak’tuns (measuring approximately 395 years each) since the "zero date" of 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, which equals the Gregorian date of August 11th (or possibly 13th), 3114 BCE. This earlier date is frequently referenced in inscriptions on Maya monuments such as the Temple of the Cross at Palenque (Rice, pp. 467-48); scholars have determined from references to earlier cycles that after 13 B’ak’tuns the "zero date" is reset, like an odometer or clock striking midnight, and the count begins again from a new "zero date" as it has in the past (Montgomery pp. 85-86; Van Stone, Appendix/Part IV). The publicity materials and websites for the film 2012 concoct a heady stew of correlations between their own fanciful ideas about this date of significance in the Maya calendar and other purported predictions of immanent apocalypse from European, African, and Asian belief systems.
While this unwieldy amalgamation of ideas is unambiguously a product of fiction writers in Hollywood, these writers have drawn inspiration from a growing school of thought that has coalesced in recent decades outside the entertainment industry; adherents to this school of thought, however, do not consider their conclusions to be restricted to the arena of fantasy. Thanks to their own tireless efforts at self-publicity and the prominence of popular media such as the film 2012, many of the highly-speculative conclusions of these theorists have begun to loom very large in the minds of the general public, and consequently the lines between fact and fiction have begun to blur. These compelling but artificial amalgamations of ideas from disparate cultures, packaged as legitimate research, have made the job of educating the public an often needlessly complicated task for anthropological+archaeological experts in the field who have spent their lives conducting peer-reviewed, careful research on ancient and modern Maya people.
Discovering the Truth
This is the first article in a series of posts that will hopefully clear up some misconceptions about the upcoming "zero date" in 2012 by unraveling some of the tangle of often-contradictory information we do have. A disparate collection of answers as to what the significance of this controversial date represents have been proposed from a wide range of sources, from New Age theorists to astrological enthusiasts to academic scholars to modern-day Maya timekeepers themselves. One thing they all have in common is the recognizance that this upcoming date is making a strong impression on a growing number of people, and that much of this impression is based on a belief that the world as we know it is about to undergo some sort of profound change. But what (if anything) is really predicted about this change, and why do so many people think that these predictions have validity?
To gain some understanding of why the idea of 2012 as a phenomenon is gaining such traction and widespread, viral popularity in our modern culture (particularly in Western countries such as the United States), we have to look at several factors:
First: We must examine our beliefs pertaining to The End Of The World in its various guises, as well as other beliefs regarding the desire for a supernaturally rapid social/spiritual transformation on a mass scale, and find out more about those who encourage these beliefs.
Second: We must discover what is actually known of the Maya themselves and their beliefs (particularly pertaining to their calendar), and consider the most credible interpretations of the information we do possess on their works.
Finally: We must look at the role of Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry in using creative interpretations of science, history, culture, and archaeology to deliver a sensational product to thrill mass numbers of people; all while making the end product appear as plausible as necessary to suspend the audience’s disbelief.
To understand these three factors, we must suspend any of our own preconceptions about the 2012 phenomenon for a moment (assuming that we have any) and attempt to look at this unwieldy picture of impending doom and/or spiritual transformation from outside of its frame, replete with all of its clashing colors and questionable juxtapositions.
Turn-of-the-2000s apocalypse paranoia has produced a Millenarian mindset in many people who are convinced that the end is imminent. This particular brand of paranoia is readily fueled by our market economy, in which countless vendors have rushed to fuel the flames of fear in order to sell survivalist goods such as dry food rations, duct tape, firearms, and plastic sheeting - all strongly echoic of the y2k scare less of than a decade ago (Buckley et al. 114-115) While this particular brand of fear is based around a specific time frame in our Christianity-based Gregorian Calendar, the psychology underlying it is nothing new. Tales of apocalypse and renewal have been reflected in traditions all around the world for thousands of years, and form part of the foundation of many belief systems. The study of different ideas concerning The End Of The World in its various guises is called eschatology; a Greek-derived term that combines eschatos (last) and -logy (the study of).
Myths from Around the World
Most global eschatology is not only concerned with the End Time itself, but also some variation of the change that follows in which an era of our present world comes to an end and experiences a renewal of some sort. Norsemen of the medieval period (the Vikings) believed that the world would end one day in Ragnarok, the "final destiny of the gods" during which the entire world is temporarily flooded and only two humans survive to repopulate a renewed planet (Davidson 46). Many Hopi Indians of the southwestern United States believe that non-Hopi ways of behavior will eventually lead to Nuutungk Talongvaqa (The Last Day). Some modern Hopi shamans say that we have been living in end times dating to perhaps as far back as when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived; when their creator spirit Maasaw returns to Earth then Nuutungk Talongvaga will come, following which is a new era free from illness, hardship, and animosity (Kippenberg et al. 323-324). Another religion heavily invested in concepts of creation, destruction, and renewal is Hinduism. One of the major gods in Hinduism is Shiva, known as the force who will bring about the end of the world as we know it (Richter-Ushanas 152). Robert Oppenheimer, inventor of the atomic bomb, paraphrased Hindu scripture referring to Shiva when he stated "I am become death, destroyer of worlds" after he successfully tested his invention; unlike Oppenheimer’s brand of destruction, however, many Hindus feel that Shiva will bring recreation and renewal as well as death (Dennis et al. 306).
All the Abrahamist religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) deal with Armageddon and the Last Judgement of all human souls by God, and also tell the story of Noah’s Ark, in which an earlier world is destroyed and subsequently repopulated by Noah and his boatful of creatures. The fabled Yawm al-Qiyamah (Day of Resurrection) in Islam (Esposito 75) and the Book of Daniel’s End Times in Judaism both concern apocalyptic visions, while Christianity has the fabled Book of Revelation. However, while Judaism and Roman Catholicism generally hold that the known universe will be renewed in some form after the Last Judgement (Graebner 235-240), Islam and many denominations of Protestant Christian eschatology hold that the universe, as we know it, will come to an end following the calling home of all individual souls to eternal existence in either Heaven or Hell (Jackson 146-148, Esposito 75).
Our culture’s eschatology mainly derives from the Abrahamist model, with the majority of modern visions of apocalypse in the United States and Western Europe having roots in Millenarian concepts developed around and leading up to 1000 C.E. during the European middle ages (Gittings 20-21). During this time, Christian believers in the significance of a thousand-year time lapse from the death of Jesus Christ felt that they were living in End Times and that an apocalypse was immanent (Cohn 31-36). These concepts drew inspiration from New Testament prophesies such as the "Great Tribulation" described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; and they were particularly inspired by the Book of Revelation that is thought to have been written sometime in the first few centuries CE following the death of Christ - the only biblical testament that is wholly composed of apocalyptic literature (Thiel, parts 2-4). Though the Catholic church hierarchy began strongly condemning these beliefs in the 3rd century AD (Cohn 29), deeming specific references to thousand-year cycles to be metaphoric rather than literal, many people still held strong beliefs all the way through the turn of the first millenium, which only strengthened in the centuries that followed (Cohn, 1-20).
According to the New Testament verse Matthew 24:35-36, Jesus himself was quite specific on the subject: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only". Regardless, Millenarian beliefs gained an even-stronger foothold in many Protestant sects following the Reformation, and though the Lutheran Church condemned them much as the Roman Catholic Church did (Cohn 252-255), many sects continued to hold the belief that we were closing in on the End Times. Modern Christian sects such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses (both of whom believe the soul remains in the body until called to Heaven at Armageddon) and Mormons believe that we are living in the End Times, and preparing for the return of Jesus Christ and end of the world as we know it is considered by many evangelical Christians of various denominations to constitute an essential cornerstone of their faith.
Many evangelicals believe that the Rapture, in which both living and dead Christians will be taken to Heaven upon the return of Jesus Christ, will occur first before a seven-year period of Great Tribulation leading up to the Final Judgement; many other Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics, in contrast, believe the events of Last Judgement will occur all at once (Kyle 78-79). These concepts stem from specific theological traditions meant to be taken as a whole, though this does not stop many serious Millenarian obsessives both within and outside the Christian faith from conflating Christian time frames and apocalyptic visions with eschatological ideas that stem from sources totally separate from them - such as the pre-Columbian religion of the ancient Maya. The internet abounds with uneasy people wondering whether the upcoming event of 2012 precipitates the return of Jesus Christ to earth, resulting in a very awkward marriage of populist fears surrounding biblical Armageddon with the esoteric complexity of Maya Calendar studies; a marriage that neither the biblical prophets nor the ancient Maya Calendar priests could possibly have anticipated.
Populist upwelling of obsessive (and sometimes compulsive) Millenarianism, however, is not the only social force driving people to focus on 2012 as a supernatural, transformative event. Next week we will take a look at how the incredibly popular New Age movement is coalescing around the date as a mystical nexus of Change - well, of some sort, anyway.
The two prior entries to the 2012: Truth, Fiction, and the Popular Imagination blog series introduced us to some questions surrounding the year 2012 and began to explore some of the sources of confusion as to what it means, starting with Millenariansm . This week, we move on to the ideas of the New Age movement, who have played a major role in the enormous and growing popularity of 2012 as a cultural phenomenon.
As mentioned in the previous blog it is common for us to experience a profound sense of unease from the enormous complexities and troubles that are part of today’s culture. The nature of our world economy and relative ease of high-speed modern travel has resulted in rapid technological change and an enormous increase in human migration that has diversified our societies (particularly urbanized ones) to a degree never seen before. These changes have the potential to bring wide prosperity and a greater understanding between different peoples, but they have also created a great deal of anxiety through both fear and curiosity about such changes. This societal anxiety, coupled with near-instantaneous access to vast stores of information on a global scale via the internet, has helped fuel an increased prominence of ideas that utilize aspects of both science and spirituality outside the realms and disciplinary criteria of traditional theology and scholarship. A diverse collection of authors and lecturers who propound such theories are often conflated under the term New Age, a philosophy that is oriented towards personal transcendence and spiritual transformation; powerful and tantalizing concepts in a world where a large percentage of people do not wish to participate in traditional organized religion yet yearn for the comfort and inner peace that is associated with faith-based belief systems (Encyclopedia Britannica).
New Age Thought
New Age thought combines selected aspects of metaphysical fields such as astrological study, popular psychology, and portions of Eastern sacred texts such as the I Ching and Boddhavista in novel ways while searching for answers to life’s difficult questions (ibid.). Certain extremely popular authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (author of The Power of Now and A New Earth), have provided millions of people with counsel and guidance that they have found extremely valuable in leading richer lives through personal transformation. The ranks of the New Age authors also include best-sellers such as Robert Bauval (author of Sirius Rising and Talisman: The Sacred Cities and The Secret Faith co-authored with Graham Hancock), and Alberto Villoldo (author of Shaman, Healer, Sage; Mending the Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval). Many of these thinkers have in turn been influenced by pseudoarchaeologists and fantasists such as Erich Von Daniken, whose 1968 work Chariots of the Gods? posited that many of the world’s ancient monumental civilizations were constructed under the direction of superior alien beings. In contrast with the apocalypse-minded millenarians, New Age spiritualists tend to see purported global changes in a positive light; with predicted events of a global impact often perceived as the "Dawn of a New Age" (Joseph 74-75).
The 2012 theme has emerged as a very popular subject in current New Age writings. The reputed significance of this upcoming date has been prominently explored by Daniel Pinchbeck (author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl), Graham Hancock (author of Supernatural: Meetings With The Ancient Teachers of Mankind), and John Major Jenkins (author of Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 and Galactic Alignment: The Transformation of Consciousness According to Mayan, Egyptian, and Vedic Traditions). Tens of millions of books have been sold between these authors, all three of whom operate as self-taught researchers independent of any established academic or institutional affiliation. All believe that the year 2012 will bring about a massive global change, positing a wide range of theories and philosophical ruminations using carefully-selected evidence of both a scientific and spiritual nature. In keeping with the freely-associative and pluralistic aspects of New Age thought, their works draw widely from a range of sources: Maya glyphic studies (epigraphy) and iconography, astronomical AND astrological observation, natural phenomena, and different indigenous practices and beliefs in both the Americas and beyond. These practices are widely known as shamanism.
Shaman is a word that stems from the language of the Tunguz people of Siberia; it refers to a practitioner of supernatural arts who can serve as a liason between the physical world and the spirit world (Lehmann et al. 98-99). The generic term shamanism has been used in the field of anthropology since the 19th century to describe a wide array of indigenous spiritual practices around the world including healing, sharing of myths and oral histories, divination, communicating with the dead, and any combination of these that are conducted by autonomous practitioners with relative leeway to conduct and interpret them as they see fit (ibid.). In recent decades, New Age authors have glommed on to shamanism as a catch-all for spirituality of all types that stem from practically anything besides the hierarchically-structured Abrahamist religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). This includes other rigidly hierarchical traditions such as Hinduism (Vedic) and little-understood ancient religions such as those of the Classic Period Maya, whose theology was closely tied to the power structure of highly-organized city-states - not autonomous spiritual practitioners like traditional Tunguz shamans (Hawley 318, Jenkins xxxix, Villoldo, Hobson 1-2). The term is constantly used when referring to various religious practices of indigenous peoples of the Americas, yet no Native American group traditionally refers to their own practitioners as "shamans" and are split between rejection of the term as an over-generalized imposition or reluctant acceptance of it for the sake of brevity when documenting and discussing their traditions with outsiders (Hawley 319-320, Hobson 7).
A major component of New Age thought is belief in what we will term a pan-shamanistic belief system. Pan-shamanism collects selected aspects of indigenous belief systems that originated from disparate, distinct cultures into an artificially contiguous school of thought. The writings of Graham Hancock rely on the idea that the great ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Pre-Columbian America were all descended from a single highly-advanced earlier civilization; a civilization whose secrets we can divulge through practices such as ritualistically taking the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca with a native Amazonian spiritual practitioner (called a shaman in Hancock’s writings). While Hancock’s ideas are painted with an exceptionally broad brush, even New Age authors who focus more on specific cultures assume the notion that modern spiritual practitioners within the Hopi, Maya, Huichol, Quechua, Tibetan, Vedic, and other traditions provide unfiltered, prophetic links with the spiritual leaders of an idealized ancient past rather than being a reflection of the complex histories, faiths, and desires of the modern peoples by whom they are expressed. For example, it is questionable whether the apocalyptic predictions of a modern Hopi spiritual practitioner can be considered to be a clear mirror of the purported eschatological (apocalyptic) visions of one of their distant pre-Columbian ancestors. Are not the modern Hopi’s visions all but certain to be strongly influenced by a deeper historical awareness than their ancestor from a time before European contact? Similarly, would not a modern Catholic Priest hold a different view of the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, and the decisions of the Church at the time that made it possible, than his 15th-century counterpart?
Pan-shamanism at its most vigorous combines a range of quite generalized and more specific assumptions, like those discussed in the paragraph above, into theories that are highly questionable once scrutinized. Just as it would seem quite ridiculous for someone in modern Norway to invent a myth that Thor (the Norse god of Thunder) was the son of Zeus (the Greek god of Thunder) and try to pass it off as traditional knowledge, it is simply erroneous to assume that a modern Hopi spiritual practitioner and an Ancient Maya calendar priest who lived over a thousand years ago would have the same visions as each other; and for an author to seek out scant evidence of commonalities between them (as John Major Jenkins does on page 33 of the introduction to Maya Cosmogenesis 2012) while ignoring the vast bulk of profound difference can be seen as partially invalidating the overall belief systems of both the Hopi and the Maya. Similarly, Daniel Pinchbeck’s writing in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl freely conflates the markedly different Aztec and Maya interpretations of the pan-Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl into a single form, and also operates on the assumption that the two cultures’ calendars functioned in the same manner and produced essentially the same prophecies. In fact, the only calendars the Aztec and Classic Period Maya closely shared were the ever-repeating 260-day Tzolk’in and the 365-day Haab’, NOT the Classic Period Maya Long Count calendar; the source from which the 2012 date is derived (Van Stone Appendix IV). Misappropriating Scientific Data as Proof Along with such questionable conflations of belief systems are heavy-handed attempts by New Age authors to use modern scientific and academically-tested data to verify the purported validity of their theories. Selected by the authors with the goal of proving their hypotheses, these analyses have produced a body of work that aspires to assure the reader that the theory is most likely correct by overwhelming them with a mishmash of selected data interpreted haphazardly; this is contradictory to scientific method, which demands that a hypothesis be tested against all reliable data available. Authors Graham Hancock and Patrick Geryl, for example, that natural phenomena such as increased sunspot activity and a magnetic field reversal will play a role in a predicted destructive/transformative 2012 event; broader scientific consensus , however, has dismissed these phenomena as minor nuisances not readily predictable to within the precise range of a calendar date.
It seems clear that New Age ideas about 2012, while generally less violent than those of the millenarianists, still carry the potential for serious misinformation when it comes to understanding the rich and complex calendars and belief systems of the ancient Maya. We will go into far more specifics about how these authors’ interpretations, particularly those of the self-described 2102ologist John Major Jenkins, contrast with the conclusions of far more numerous but less-famous experts in the field of Maya studies during the next section of this blog: What do we know about what the ancient Maya thought with regard to December 21 (or 23) 2012, the end of the 5125-year cycle of 13 B’ak’tuns, how do we know it, and what exactly is so important about a B’ak’tun anyway?
We have discussed some aspects of the public fascination, hype and hysteria surrounding the upcoming date of December 21 (or 23!), 2012 over the previous posts in this series: Introduction, Millenarianism , and Pan-Shamanism. This date was translated from an ancient Maya calendar, and is believed by many to be a harbinger of great change, potentially destructive and transformative in nature. New Age and Millenarianist -style media have provided much of the fuel for a growing fire of curiosity and concern about 2012, a fire which is now being fed by the entertainment industry for the purpose of selling a sensational product to a willing public. After all, as we’ve said before who doesn’t like a good end-of-the-world movie based on a fantastic supernatural myth?
The fears and concepts of modern, western culture have been grafted onto a far earlier and vastly different culture’s belief system. In doing so, we have unfortunately ended up with invented myths that look an awful lot like other western myths - but not like those of the ancient Maya. A brief look at what we know of this fascinating culture can easily prove as compelling as any Hollywood blockbuster. As we are discussing a complex subject, this post is lengthier than the others and thus split into two sections (A and B). Hopefully it will provide the reader with a greater insight into the world of the Maya people. For a quick overview, read the bolded passages.
A side note on terms: The word "Maya" is used when referring to the people, while "Mayan" is used when referring to their language(s) - either written or spoken.
What happened to the Maya?
An increasing number of parallels have been drawn by modern theorists between current western society and that of the ancient Maya of the Late Preclassic and Classic periods. This legendary civilization achieved its greatest lasting world prominence by erecting enormous independent city-states in the lowland Petén region of present-day Guatemala and Belize. This grand civilization lasted from a few hundred years BCE until around 900 CE. This time period is called Terminal Classic, and is more popularly known as the "Maya Collapse" (Henderson 114, 139, 199). Starting around 800 CE and continuing over the next century, the region’s cities were abandoned by most of their inhabitants following three severe droughts, overpopulation, over-extension of natural resources, increasing demands from a threatened elite for public construction, and intensified warfare (Sharer 355-357, Henderson 236-239) (also see Ashley Richter’s post for some of the latest research on ancient deforestation around the metropolis of Tikal). The great scale and relative rapidity of these abandonments has given us interesting grist for thought pertaining to questions of modern civilization’s long-term sustainability, particularly with regard to unsustainable use of natural resources. The most popular credible work of scholarship to explore this subject is Jared Diamond’s book Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
Though their society experienced substantial hardship during the end of the first millennium CE, the Maya did not simply "disappear". Rather, they migrated in great numbers, creating a diaspora that established new cities and increased the populations of older ones in areas peripheral to the Petén Region. Popular areas of settlement included the Yucatan, the coast of modern-day Belize, and Highland Guatemala (which had been considered a Maya heartland since several hundred years before the rise of cities in the lowland Petén)(Sharer 357-358, 368; Henderson ibid.). While transformative social upheavals seem to have occurred frequently thoughout the first millennium and early in the second millennium CE, it was the period of European conquest, which began in this area in 1519, that unquestionably resulted in the greatest concentrated loss of traditional knowledge since the Maya culture’s earliest known inception. This is in many ways the story of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas (Henderson 259; Coe 202-205). With the Spanish conquistadors came forced Christianization, land seizures, forced relocations, enslavement under the encomienda system, the burning of nearly all of the Maya sacred codexes (bark-paper books), destruction of monuments, language suppression, and more. This all added up to an incalculable loss of heritage for the Maya (deLanda 157-160).
This cultural suppression has continued into modern times under various guises (Coe 208-212; Womack 87-104, 340-354). However, nearly five centuries of repression have not succeeded in eliminating this proud people: Six million speakers of over 22 Mayan languages live in the region today, a number that is thought to be far greater than their numbers at the time of the Spanish Conquest (Van Stone I-13).
Remains of the Maya Written Language
While the Maya cultures and belief systems of 21st-century Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatan and Chiapas share numerous commonalities with their distant ancestors, all cultures change over time. The Maya’s turbulent history since the Spanish Conquest has created great rifts in modern knowledge of many of their older belief systems (Warren 148-162, 189-191). Fortunately for both global scholarship and the modern Maya people, the ancient Maya developed a complex writing system that has endured to the present-day. This writing system was carved into stone monuments and small objects, painted on cave walls and pottery, and inscribed in the four known Maya codexes that survived the great book-burning of the 16th century. Despite their fragmentary and incomplete nature, these resources have provided a great deal of information about the histories of ruling lineages of different Maya kingdoms. They have also provided valuable insight into the supernatural forces and different realms that existed in Maya cosmology and prophesies. (Henderson 21-23).
The complex glyphic writing system of the ancient Maya is considered to be logographic, which means it uses both syllables from ancient Mayan dialects (particularly Yukatekan and Ch’olan) and symbols that represent whole words or concepts (Montgomery 2002:5-6; Henderson 19-21). Many of the Maya calendar and numerical glyphs have only been partially understood since the time of the Spanish Conquest, and it wasn’t until the breakthroughs of scholars Yuri Knorosov and Tatiana Proskouriakoff in the 1950s and 1960 that we began to really understand the Mayan syllabic and word glyphs. This understanding enabled scholars to accurately decipher Maya calendar and numerical glyphs. Unfortunately, much of the confusion over these dates persists from inaccurate translations that occurred before the 1950s (Henderson 18-20, Coe 194-195).
The bulk of Mayan inscriptions and calendar dates that we have access to today are from stone carvings in the great ruined cities of the Maya Classic Period, located in the vast lowland jungles of Petén and its peripheral areas - Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tikal, Caracol, Copan, Calakmul (ibid. 111, 139-140). It is from a combination of information from their Long Count calendar dates (used almost exclusively during the Late Preclassic and Classic periods), and the more-recently deciphered vocabulary, that we have derived a great deal of our information about the history and society of the ancient Maya. This includes dates and numbers of significance (Rice 40-45). Does that include December 21 (or 23), 2012?
This is Section B of the three-section Part IV of the 2012 Blog Series from CyArk ...Yes, that is a bit confusing, but so is the Maya calendar - at least to our eyes. Be aware that these next two entries are going to be a bit challenging. Stick to the Bold Text if you want a quick overview, but if you make it through the whole thing you’ll be an expert.
Scholars were able to read the Maya calender inscriptions before the rest of the ancient Maya glyphs because two of their calendars, the Tzolk’in and Haab’, are still in use by traditional timekeepers in Mesoamerica, particularly in the Maya region (Rice 49). Also, the Tzolk’in and the Haab’ calendars match the Aztecs’ 260-day Tonalpohualli and 365-day Xiuhpohualli calendars in many ways. As the Aztecs are a particularly well-documented pre-Colombian culture, knowledge of their calendars helped early scholars make sense of the Maya ones (Rice 30-33).
The Tzolk’in Calendar
The 260-day Tzolk’in is the older calendar of the two and is thought to have existed from at least as early as 1600 BCE (Rice 33). It begins with a number from 1 to 13 attached to one of 20 named days in succession, each with its own glyph. The Tzolk’in’s numerals and days can be combined to create 260 different variations before the same day and number combination are repeated in the cycle (Van Stone IV-6; Rice 31). Scholars are not precisely sure what the 260-day period correlates to, but theories include agricultural cycles, the gestation period of human pregnancy, and the movements of celestial bodies (particularly Venus). The mythically-charged Tzolk’in is generally referenced by its supporters for divinations of the supernatural (Rice 33-34; Van Stone IV-22).
The Haab’ Calendar
The Haab’ calendar is roughly equivalent to our own 365-day solar year. It operates similarly to the Tzolk’in, but instead of a 13 by 20 combination system (to make 260 days), it uses 18 by 20 to arrive at 360 days. Five extra days called wayeb’ are tacked on at the end for a full 365 days. Something like months, the 18 periods of the Haab’ are called winals, and each winal has 20 days (called k’in), which make a 360-day tun. The wayeb at the end of the year translate loosely as "dark" or "dangerous" (Van Stone IV-18). The earliest written evidence of the Haab’ dates to the 6th century BCE in Oaxaca but it was likely in use long before that (Rice 45-46; Montgomery 2003:19). The Haab’ correlates very closely to the approximately 365-day solar year but does not factor in an extra day every four years, a "leap year", as our Gregorian calendar does (ibid. 42). Most Maya dates are expressed as a combination of Tzolk’in and Haab’; the Aztec, in contrast, mainly used the Tzolk’in, and the Haab’ appeared only rarely (Van Stone IV-20, 41).
The Tzolk’in and Haab’ calendars interlock with each other like gears in a clock, in the interval known by Mayanists as the Calendar Round. During this round it takes a total of 37,960 days (52 years) before the same day names and numbers coincide in both calendars again (Rice 31). For the measurement of greater periods of time, however, there was a third Maya calendar. This calendar has no specific name that we are yet aware of, so Mayanist scholars have termed it the Long Count Calendar. Unlike the Calendar Round, which is still in use in some Maya communities, the Long Count Calendar fell out of use over 1000 years ago following the end of the Classic Period, and for the most part has only been readable by modern people for the past 80 years. This is thanks to the preeminent Mayanist Sir Eric Thompson, who cracked important parts of its glyphic code (Henderson 283, Van Stone IV-39).
The Long Count Calendar
The Long Count, like the 52-year Calendar Round, involves the interlocking cycles of the ever-repeating Tzolk’in and Haab’, but it fixes them within a far longer range of time. This range is based upon an actual year with a set origin date - much like our Common Era (AD or CE) system currently tells us it has been 2009 years since the birth of Jesus Christ (Montgomery 2003:5). Long Count inscriptions start with what Mayanist scholars term the Initial Series Introducing Glyph (ISIG), a distinct, large glyph that tells us a date is about to be recorded (Montgomery 2003:5-6; Rice 172). This glyph is followed by other glyphs, each with a corresponding number to indicate the specific number of time units elapsed in each discrete category. These start at the top with the largest time units and go all the way down to the individual Calendar Round (Tzolk’in and Haab’) dates, creating a system that measures over thousands of years right down to the specific day being recorded (Montgomery 2003:5).
Understanding the Long Count system is not easy, but there are some parallels that can be drawn to the Gregorian Calendar which can help. In our current system, the most common numeric expression of a date uses three units: day, month, year. Dates in our Gregorian Calendar format can be written in a number of ways, but for our purposes, we’ll express November 12th, 2009 as 12.11.2009. The Maya had more than three units, and if one were so inclined, so too could we. If you wanted to add more time units to our system, the easiest thing to do is break the year 2009 into centuries and single years. This creates a date that looks like this: 12.11.09.20. Now, if we wanted to make something more similar to the Long Count, we would do it a little differently - we would reverse the order of the numbers, add a millennia unit and break apart the centuries and decades, then place the specific day and month at the end as they are the units that repeat periodically. So what we have looks like this: 126.96.36.199 November the 12th - Thursday. Functionally, this is much the same as the Long Count date 188.8.131.52.0 4 Ahau 3 K’ank’in, which equals the date December 21 (or 23), 2012 - but with some key differences.
The Maya Long Count has 5 units of time, each going up to 20 before adding a number to the bigger unit and flipping over to zero - this is in contrast to our system, in which numbers switch over after they hit 10 (i.e., 184.108.40.206 becomes 220.127.116.11). The five Maya Long Count units are named and organized as follows, starting from the right and going to the left: The k’in is a single day, which makes up the last digit in the series and goes up to 20. Positioned before the k’in is the winal count, each number of which equals 20 kins (a bit like short months). The winal is the only unit position that flips back to zero before it reaches 20, and in keeping with the divisible-by-20 format, the tun is made up of 18 winals or 360 k’in for a rough approximation of the solar year; this does not factor in the 5 "dark days" (wayeb’) at the end of the year. Positioned before the tun is the k’atun, made up of 20 tuns, and positioned at the beginning of the series right after the ISIG is the b’aktun of 20 k’atuns - just short of 400 years (Montgomery 2003:40-43).
Written in our numerical system, a date from the Long Count would look something like this: 18.104.22.168.6, which would mean 9 b’aktuns, 12 k’atuns, 17 tuns, zero winals, and 6 k’ins, signifying the total amount of time that had passed since the fixed beginning date of the Long Count (ibid. 42). The earliest recorded complete Initial Series date yet found comes from the Gulf Coast Olmec culture site of Tres Zapotes, where a monument known as Stela C records an Initial Series date of 22.214.171.124.18 6 Etz’nab’, which is equivalent to September 3rd (or 5th), 32 BCE (Rice 103). The earliest Long Count date from the central Maya lowlands (Peten region) is the date 126.96.36.199.15, found on Stela 29 at the city of Tikal and correlating to 292 CE (Henderson 116).
The current fixed point in time from which the Long Count Initial Series measures is a 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u day (Tzolk’in and Haab’ dates, respectively) almost 13 b’aktuns ago, with the Long Count date being recorded as 188.8.131.52.0 - NOT 0.0.0.0.0 as would be expected; for whatever reason, the ancient Maya believed that the Long Count calendar reset itself at the end of a previous 13 b’aktun, 5125-year cycle rather than a 20 b’aktun 7885-year cycle (Rice 147; Van Stone FAQs). In our Gregorian calendar, this date corresponds to August 11th, 3114 BCE, though Mayanist scholars are split on whether to use a more recently-developed calendar correlation that sets the date two days later on August 13th (Rice 172; Van Stone IV-39; Montgomery 2003:43-44).
Either way, this date is well before the development of Maya civilization or its antecedents such as the Olmec, and is mythic in origin, probably based at least partially around numerology pertaining to the number 13 and perhaps agricultural associations with maize (corn) harvesting in August (Rice 176). Though the religious elites of different Classic Period Maya cities interpreted the calendars in different ways with widely-varying conclusions, this particular date held widespread significance as the creation point of the current world, while other dates referenced before this event stretch deeply back into time and earlier creations. In the case of Stela 1 in the city of Macanxoc, an event is recorded with a date stretching 13 periods earlier than 184.108.40.206.0, back to 220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124.126.96.36.199.0 - a period of 41,943,040,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years (Montgomery 2003:80-84). In the ancient Maya worldview, there were many creations before our current world came into existence, but clearly they believed something significant was there in the distant past before the current agreed-upon origin point in 3114 BCE.
End of the World?
The Long Count date 188.8.131.52.0, falling on a 4 Ahau 3 K’ank’in Calendar Round date, will be replicated on December 21st (or 23rd), 2012. Maya epigraphers (experts on the glyphic inscriptions) have been aware of this upcoming date for decades. The limited records we have of ancient Maya k’atun endings (approximately 20 years) indicate that they would have celebrated this date with the construction of new monuments, a layer of fresh stucco and paint on existing buildings, veneration of ancestors, and public festivities and rituals (Rice 177-178, Sharer 546-547). Many people, particularly millenarianists and New Age spiritualists , believe that since the previous creation ended after 13 b’aktuns, the current creation will end at that point as well. The current glyphic evidence, however, provides little or no indication that the Maya believed anything will happen at the end of this particular 5125-year period (Van Stone III; Montgomery 2003:86; Houston 2008). Many experts in Maya studies believe, from written evidence at different sites, that the ancient Maya believed their Long Count calendar’s b’aktun unit would simply reset (like a clock striking midnight), add a new upper-level time unit (a piktun of 13 b’akuns) and a new period of time will start, with life continuing on much as before following recognition of the period ending - but will the calendar actually reset after 13 b’aktuns this time?
There is substantial written evidence, from the ruins of major ceremonial centers, to indicate that the current b’aktun unit will not reset after it hits 13. Numerous dates in the future well after 2012 are frequently referenced in Classic Period Maya inscriptions, which almost always place emphasis on "impersonal temporal events that are safely predictable"; less action-oriented than purely calendrical (Houston and Stuart 1996:301). For example, 7th-century glyphs in the great Maya city of Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions predict celebrations on the date 184.108.40.206.0.8 (over 4000 years into the future) surrounding the 80th Calendar Round anniversary of the coronation of Palenque’s king Pakal Shield who is buried beneath the Temple. In this case, the Temple’s carvers worked under the assumption that the b’aktuns would continue up past 13 to 20 (as 80 Calendar Rounds would have equalled up to an additional 6 b’aktuns), at which point it would flip to zero and a higher-order unit (a piktun) of 1 would be added to make for a total of 6 digits in the date (220.127.116.11.0.0) rather than our current 5 (which is 18.104.22.168.1 for the year 2009)(Van Stone II-85, Carrasco 2004). Thus, the carvers at Palenque believed the momentous period-ending was not set for the year 2012 but the year 4772; and the fact that they believed people after that point would be celebrating Pakal’s reign indicates they had no reason to think there would any drastic break with the traditions of the past. Meanwhile, over at the Mesoamerican metropolis of Tikal, there is a monument bearing a date with the b’aktun position set to 19, 6 positions in the future beyond the upcoming 22.214.171.124.0 date and, again, indicating the calendar will not flip in 2012 as commonly believed (Van Stone II-97).
So...What DO the ancient Maya have to say about 2012 in their texts?
This entry is Section C of the three-section Part IV of the 2012 Blog Series from CyArk ...Yes, that is a bit convoluted, but so is the Maya calendar itself (at least to our eyes), so be aware that these entries are a bit challenging - You could also stick to the Bold Text if you want a quick overview. If you make it through the whole thing, though, you’ll be an expert in no time!
As discussed previously in this blog, our knowledge of the Classic Period Maya is limited and very fragmented. Even the writing of the Maya of the Post-Classic period, who stopped using the Long Count , has substantial differences with the literature we possess from their immediate ancestors. Two things that the many ancient Maya peoples all have in common, however, is that they placed a great deal of value upon the written word as a communicator of knowledge, and NONE of their written records seem to have believed anything of great significance was in store for us on December 21st (or 23rd), 2012. Of course, it is a reasonable question whether we may have simply not found the evidence yet, given our limited source material. The prudent answer to this is that numerous ancient, glyphic texts we have, do pay a great deal of attention to the creation events of August 11th (or 13th) 3114 BCE, as well as numerous, generally mundane events in the future. It is a reasonable assumption that if the ancient Maya believed something important was to happen in 2012 we would have found many things written about it by now.
Did the Maya Write About 2012?
In fact, the only known written piece of evidence from the ancient Maya pertaining to the b’aktun ending in 2012 is inscribed upon Monument 6 from the Palenque-associated Classic Period city called Tortuguero. Monument 6 is a carved, T-shaped stone slab that originally served as a panel inside a building; the slab is highly-fragmented and missing major portions of its glyphs. The prominent Mayanist epigraphers Stephen Houston and David Stuart have attempted to make sense of the text that remains. In 1996, they tentatively interpreted the text as a predictive one, considered unusual as most Classic Period references to the future almost always place emphasis on "impersonal temporal events that are safely predictable"; less action-oriented than purely calendrical (Houston and Stuart 1996:301) . Monument 6’s text begins with the 126.96.36.199.18 Long Count date of its associated building’s initial construction (around 700 CE) followed by glyphs reading tzuhtzjoom u 13 b’aktun 4 Ajaw 3 Kank’in utoom, indicating a future calendar event at the end of the 13th b’aktun (December 21 or 23, 2012). This declaration of some event is followed by the syllable i-, an eroded glyph, and an inference that a god or collective totality of gods (Bolon Yookte’) will "descend" (ye-ma) to the...? Any further details are obscured due to the fragmented nature of the text (Houston and Stuart 1996).
Past, Present, Future
While this may seem ominous, it is pivotal to understand that the ancient Maya conception of time itself is very different from ours. Many Classic Period inscriptions deal with events in time frames so remotely in the past or future they seem downright bizarre, while other inscriptions concern supernatural events that occur entirely outside of time itself (Van Stone III). The non-linear, repetitive, and cyclical nature of the calendars assure that history and the present are at one with prophecy and divination. In ancient Maya belief systems, the past, present, and future are frequently conflated together (Rice 172-176, 187-204; Van Stone III; Henderson 48-49, 55-57). This could be seen as somewhat analogous to Christianity’s simultaneous worship of Jesus as a living (resurrected) being, a deceased martyr, and a constant presence who is also due to immanently return - these seemingly-contradictory states are accepted as part of a totality of belief and faith in God. The narrative of the biblical testaments, however, is generally far more linear and absolute in its view of time than the belief system of the ancient Maya, which saw time as highly malleable and steeped in religious metaphors; subject to change at the whim of a ruler, diviner, or scribe (ibid).
Houston and Stuart’s continuing studies of Tortuguero Monument 6 have determined that it bears a striking similarity in narrative structure and pattern of dates with a number of other monuments from Classic Period urban centers; the key syllable is the i-. This suffix is considered by linguists to be a discourse marker, used somewhat similarly to English terms such as "because", "but", and "or". It is used in these calendrical texts as part of a broader pattern that conflates the immediate event it documents with dates far in the future or past which fall upon numerically-significant period-endings. In all of the complete texts we have that show narrative similarity to the fragmented one from Tortuguero, evocations of such distant dates end with an obvious return back to the present date in which the inscription was carved. Additional glyphic writing associated with these dates strongly infer that any events documented actually occurred at the time of the carving rather than far removed in the future or past (Houston 2008; Stuart 2009).
Thus, if we draw a logical interpretation based on similar narratives from other Classic Period cities such as Palenque and Naranjo, we come to the conclusion that Toruguero Monument 6 was discussing the dedication of the building from which it was originally a part of (Houston 2008). Evocation of the "descent" of a single God or the Nine Support Gods (Bolon Yookte’) could be either a common reference to Maya creation mythology (which pivotally involves hearth-building/house construction under the direction of 7 or 9 Gods) and/or an inference that these God(s) were seen as directly present at the time of the building’s construction. This is not improbable considering that the ancient Maya felt their deities had numerous forms and saw evidence of them in a wide-ranging array of natural and human phenomena (Van Stone II-42; Henderson 48; Rice 147). One way or another, there is little precedent or reason to believe the monument is talking about an event in 2012 that is of much more importance than the celebration of the construction anniversary of this particular building, located in a Classic Period Maya city of relatively little importance (Houston 2008). Further investigation is impossible, however, as the remaining ruins of Tortuguero were destroyed in the 1960s when a cement factory was built atop them (Zender and Guenter 6).
A Galactic Alignment?
While scholarly Mayanist consensus (such as it is) generally agrees that 2012 was probably a relative nonevent in the eyes of the ancient Maya, this has not stopped a veritable torrent of opinions from our previously-discussed independent, non-academic authors as to the supposed nature of this upcoming date, destructive or transformative . The most high-profile of these is John Major Jenkins, a self-described 2012ologist whose book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 is probably the most popular of the New Age-oriented works that predict a great transformative event in 2012. His work concerning 2012 is more focused than his peers, as he has spent a great deal of time immersing himself in independent study of present and ancient cultures of the Maya regions of Central America; he has particularly focused on Maya astrology and iconography from the site of Izapa (Jenkins Intro.).
Jenkins believes that the Maya may have closely observed the almost-imperceptably slow precession of the equinoxes, in which Earth’s elliptic orbit makes the constellations of the Zodiac appear to slowly rotate around the sky; they make a complete circuit every 26,000 years or so (Meeus 1997). He posits that ancient Maya observation of precession made them aware of the fact that December 21st (or 23rd), 2012 marks both the approximate time of the winter equinox and the so-called "Galactic Alignment". This is when the "Dark Rift", a cluster of dust clouds that appear to our eyes to bisect the Milky Way Galaxy in a starless line, aligns itself precisely with the sun. This galactic event is seen as having the potential to produce a destructive and/or transformative result (Jenkins 366-367).
Contradicting Jenkins’ hypothesis, however, is the fact that the "Galactic Alignment" actually takes place over a period of 36 years, and that the most precise alignment occurred in 1998 (Meeus 1997). Additionally, there is little evidence that the Maya paid great heed to the precise winter and summer equinoxes. These annual occurrences are of far more concern to peoples of northerly latitudes with more well-defined seasons (Van Stone I:44-48). The Maya calendars were more divinatory and less concerned with the precise solar year. Remember, they did not factor in the "leap year" as we do to keep our calendars solar-year accurate (Van Stone ibid.; Rice 189-191).
Finally, we must keep in mind that Jenkins’ primary source material is drawn from studies of the Late Preclassic/Early Classic site of Izapa, located on the Pacific slope of modern-day Chiapas, Mexico. This 2,500 year-old city was on the periphery of the Maya region, along with neighbors such as the Lenca and Xinca. While Izapa’s carvings contain a great deal of complex iconography and several Long Count dates, there is no decipherable glyphic writing at the site. This is perhaps a reflection of its role as a trade crossroads between different cultural spheres with different languages - similar to the text-free Classic Period metropolis Teotihuacan in central Mexico (Henderson 84-85; Van Stone FAQs). A total lack of readable text at Izapa makes any interpretation of pictorial iconography entirely subject to the interpreter’s discretion with little to verify or contradict any conclusions. In other words, Izapa fails to be a reliable source of evidence when trying to prove Jenkins’ hypothesis right or wrong. While some of Jenkins’ interpretations of Izapan pictorial art may seem to be plausible on a surface level, we must keep in mind that before we understood the Mayan glyphic language, general opinion was that the Maya were a race of peaceful calendar-priests, uninterested in war or dynastic political intrigue. We now know that the lives of kings and their military adventures are precisely the subjects of most Maya inscriptions found in Classic Period city-states (Henderson 18-23).
Archaeology meets Mass Culture
Though we do know enough about the ancient Maya at this point to make these cautious assumptions, much of our knowledge on the broader spectrum of their specific history and traditions is still fragmentary and not well-publicized outside of academic circles. These information gaps leave a wide opening for modern people far disassociated from ancient Maya society, from John Major Jenkins to Jared Diamond, to use it as a blank slate upon which to inscribe our own modern, western dilemmas and insecurities. As the ideas these authors propound are argued in such a manner as to have great resonance with the modern concerns of our society, the popularity of their books grow, regardless of whether their analytical methods are sound or not. Combine these sensationalist ideas with the exotic appeal of a foreign culture very different from our own, an ancient culture that abandoned great cities to romantically crumble in the middle of tropical jungle while many of their descendants still live traditional, modest lives today - and you have the makings of mass entertainment. Cue Hollywood!
In Part V, this blog series wraps up its final entry with a review of the film 2012! More importantly, however, we take a look at how and why the entertainment industry have consistently looked to creative (*ahem*) interpretations of archaeology and history, fuse them to the things we care about in the present, and generate an explosive new product that has equal capacity to excite and totally misinform the viewer. All here on CyArk!
In the prior chapters of this CyArk blog series, we have talked about the idea of the year 2012: What it means to modern people, and what it may have meant to the Classic Period Maya of Central America. The Maya are a still-living people whose Long Count calendar (used between approximately 30 BCE and 900 AD/CE) forms the main basis for the current hysteria which links 2012 to a possible, world-changing event of a transformative or destructive nature. These episodes are as follows: Introduction , Millenarianism (apocalyptic thought), New Age Predictions , The Maya People , The Maya Calendars , and Maya Predictions . Now, it is time for the elephant in the room: The feature film 2012 and all of its accompanying mass media spectacles, countless newspaper and magazine articles, blogs (including this one), and TV presentations. All of these feed the flames of public curiosity, hype, and a certain measure of hysteria about what has become a cultural phenomenon, one not dissimilar to the Y2k scare a decade ago but with the exotic, foreign twist implicit to discussions of ancient belief systems from cultures other than our own.
The highest profile manifestation of this particular cultural phenomenon is a new feature film titled, simply, 2012. Its plot is partially based on data from the results of archaeological research, specifically breakthroughs in reading Classic Period Maya glyphic writing. These breakthroughs have given us great insight into their calendars, history, and beliefs. That this archaeological knowledge would undergo creative adaptation into entertainment should come as no surprise. Even if we don’t count the incredibly popular Indiana Jones series of films, Hollywood has for many decades had a relationship with the romantic aspects and sensational discoveries of the occasionally-stuffy academic discipline of archaeology. These films always combine a public fascination with the new (old), and how it resonates with us and our own perspectives; this resonance with the audience is a particularly vital element if a film is to find a wide viewership.
Egyptology in Film
Of course, the specific topics of films that incorporate aspects of knowledge produced from archaeology (sometimes called the archaeological narrative) have changed over time as new discoveries are made. In the early years of film, Egyptology (particularly mummification) was a very hot topic as major discoveries were still being made in the Valley of the Kings. Though archaeological excavation of the largely-undisturbed tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922 offered inspiration for the 1932 Boris Karloff film The Mummy (re-made in 1999), it was not the first offering by Hollywood on this subject. A 1911 film also titled The Mummy was presented as a comedy, wherein a young Egyptologist accidentally electrifies a female mummy back to life (a la Frankenstein) who promptly falls for him, much to the chagrin of his fiancee. A more reflective take on the physical remains of Egypt’s famed past was created by the Egyptian writer/director Chadi Abdel Salam, whose 1973 film al-Mummia depicts the discovery of a large cache of Royal Mummies at Luxor by a poor, 19th-century Egyptian family that makes a living by looting ancient sites; the family’s need for subsistence conflicts with guilt over the exploitation of their country’s heritage.
Paleoanthropology in Film
Egyptology is far from the only archaeological subfield interpreted by Hollywood, however. Paleoanthropology is the archaeological and biological study of early human development and prehistoric culture. The field strives to understand how the earliest people lived and what they looked like. Though cavemen had been depicted in films as far back as Buster Keaton’s comedy Three Ages (1923), paleoanthropology became a common subject for feature films in the 1960s-1970s, when major advances in excavation and fossil/lithic (stone) analysis were accompanied by the discovery of early hominids such as Lucy and Lake Turkana Boy (Lewin 120). As with Egyptology, a wide range of paleoanthropology-themed films, from silly comedies to serious dramas, explored newly-formed ideas about the lives of prehistoric humans. While sex symbol Raquel Welch starred in One Million Years B.C. (1967) wearing a fur bikini and Fred Flintstone used his own feet to power a stone-age car on The Flintstones (1960-1966), the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) featured an introductory sequence that portrays early humans in a more Paleoanthropologically-informed manner - as animals evolving into a higher consciousness.
This more-serious evolutionary approach was further explored in the 1980s with the release of films such as Quest For Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear that dramatize the lives of our early ancestors, though the characters in these films occasionally display unquestionably modern behaviors that provide for a bit of unintentional comedy. This brand of unintentional prehistoric silliness was displayed most prominently (and recently) in 2012-director Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 B.C. (2008); a fast-paced stone age adventure/drama in which noble Mammoth-hunting savages (speaking full English) must fight giant dinosaur-like birds, sabre-toothed tigers, and a slave-hunting new civilization in the desert that is building massive Egyptian-style pyramids using Wooly Mammoths as labor. An implausible scenario, to put it mildly, but one that entertains nonetheless.
The Ancient Maya in Film
Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, the narratives of Mayanist archaeology have become the subject of several feature films. Mel Gibson’s highly-controversial epic Apocalypto (2006) attempted to dramatize the lives of Maya people during the so-called Maya Collapse around 900 CE. In an ambitious effort at archaeoogical-correctness, the filmmakers meticulously studied Classic Period Maya artwork to replicate styles of dress and even used the Yucatec Maya language for its dialogue, the first time a feature film was made in this language. The final film, however, was heavily criticized by archaeologists for a wide range of perceived inaccuracies. These included depictions of human sacrificial practices that were Aztec, not Maya, as well as historical inaccuracy in conflating the time frame of the Maya Collapse with that of the Spanish Conquest (for two excellent archaeological critiques by Mayanists on Apocalypto, go to Gerardo Aldana’s article and Zachary X. Hruby’s article ). More light-heartedly, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) embellished Steven Spielberg’s long-running Indiana Jones franchise with strongly Maya-themed pyramids, paintings, glyphic inscriptions, and language-references; this was despite the fact that the film was set mostly in the Amazon of South America, not in the Central American home of the Maya (past and present). In keeping with the fantastical nature of the Indiana Jones enterprise and in a direct homage to Chariots of the Gods? author Erich Von Daniken , it turns out Spielberg’s ancient Maya were aliens all along, waiting for the right moment to turn their pyramids back into spaceships and zoom off into the cosmos.
Entertainment vs. Archaeological Narrative
In every single one of these films, the stories have been carefully crafted to address the dreams, concerns, and sense of humor of the modern-day audiences that view them. Simultaneously serving as art (however bad) and entertainment, all of these films use some version of archaeological narrative as an initial jumping-off point for a director and writer’s onscreen vision that resonates both with them and the audience. This task necessitates taking frequent liberties with the narratives of archaeologists, whose methodical and evidence-based approaches don’t often make for a fast-moving story with unambiguous conclusions. As a result, the path from field research to feature film can thus result in a peculiar archaeological version of the Game of Telephone: First, field archaeologists publish their findings and speculations in journals and scholarly books, which are then presented in a slightly-altered (simplified) version in popular science media such as National Geographic, Archaeology Magazine, and CyArk. Both the scholarly books and popular science media are then used as sources for books and other media outside of academic circles, such as those by New Age spiritualists these present a more heavily-altered version of the original narrative, replete with new conclusions and speculations. Then, all of these sources trickle down and combine in the echo chamber of the internet, that vast storehouse of information which allows the individual to prove or disprove anything he or she desires - assuming this individual ignores the question of how valid their sources are. After picking up steam on the internet and the other aforementioned popularizing media, the greatly-altered narrative bursts into mass consciousness on television and film. The ubiquitousness of TV and movies act in turn like steroids on the internet echo chamber, where growing numbers of newly-minted "experts" endlessly debate different aspects of fact and fiction pertaining to a story that often retains only the most superficial resemblance to the archaeological narrative it was originally drawn from. The producers of television and film spectaculars, however, are far more concerned with how their final product resonates with (sells to) a mass audience than they are with any questions as to how realistic or plausible their storyline is - or what version of a particular narrative it is drawn from.
2012: The CyArk Review
This concern with audience resonance (ticket sales) defines the final cut of the film 2012 itself - Chock-full of spectacular special effects and clocking in at two and a half hours, the film’s editors seem to have cut a majority of the backstory that is heavily alluded-to on the film’s promotional website . This website, which includes details on decades of preparation by the fictional IHC (Institute for Human Continuity) for the End Of The World, is far more influenced by millenarianist and New Age spiritualist ideas about 2012 than the archaeological narrative source material by Mayanist scholars. Regardless, very few of these details appear in the final film, which only refers a couple of times to the Maya calendars and their purported predictions of a "Galactic Alignment" (clearly modeled after John Major Jenkins’ ideas in Maya Cosmosis 2012) that brings about the end of the world. Indeed, the main proponent of these ideas in the film is the character Charlie Frost, entertainingly portrayed as a burned-out hippie [millenarianist] by legendary loose-cannon actor Woody Harrelson; a character that reviewer Manohla Dargis, writing in the New York Times , humorously suggested might be modeled after New Age psychedelic journeyman Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. Harrelson’s fringe element turns out to be correct in the film, of course, but the intent seems at least as comedic as it is contemplative. In fact, the film’s portrayal of The End of The World presents itself as almost an apocalyptic version of slapstick, in which seemingly-indestructible, wisecracking lead actor John Cusack speeds his family to safety in a series of high-speed vehicles as the earth’s crust collapses in their wake.
In this promotional still frame pictures film 2012, family man Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) confronts millenarianist pirate radio broadcaster Charlie Frost as the Yellowstone supervolcano explodes right next to them. Charlie Frost’s fictional radio show, This is the End, contains the film’s only direct references to the Maya Calendar’s supposed "end date" in 2012.2012 is relentlessly entertaining, a little exhausting at 2.5 hours in length, and utterly ridiculous. It plays shamelessly to our anxieties and intense curiosity about total apocalypse, a subject people have been fascinated by across countless cultures and vast spans of time. The film has practically nothing to do with the Maya calendar, which is relegated to a footnote in this piece of Hollywood showmanship. In this, the film 2012 is similar to and perhaps even more honest than other mass entertainment spectacles which involve stories and data adapted from archaeological narratives - it aims to be pure entertainment, and little more, feeding, exciting, and echoing our modern desires and fears while the year/date itself and its exotic origins serve as simple window dressing to a story about us - well, the Hollywood version of us, anyway.
Worries about The End
More worrisome than the film itself is public hysteria around the actual date of December 21 (or 23), 2012, which has generated a great deal of fear and, for some people who are a bit more emotionally fragile, threats of suicide (see this article from National Geographicfor more examples and information). This hysteria has been fed by the makers of the film for the purpose of hyping it, and it is growing increasingly difficult (particularly on the internet) to find voices of reason in an often-sinister wilderness of open speculation on the subject.
Hopefully, this hysteria will subside as calmer heads prevail and make their voices heard. Though we have a more-than-excellent chance of waking up on December 22 (or 24), 2012, in the same shape as we were when we went to sleep, we might want to keep an eye on those of us who are a bit more impressionable than others. Take a moment to let these worriers know they should take all the scary things they are reading on the internet about 2012 with a grain of salt - or twenty. After all, the ancient Maya didn’t seem concerned enough to really write much of anything about it. Should we?
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