New Mayan Discovery: The World Isn’t Ending!

The Mayans predicted that the world would end in 2012, right? Not according to a recent dig.

Tyrone Turner / National Geographic Society

In case you missed the newsflash, the end of days will not be December 21 of this year. You will need to buy holiday gifts after all.

“That is correct, the world will not end,” says William Saturno, the Boston University archaeologist behind a new paper that could help put to rest the long-held myth that the ancient Mayans predicted a 2012 apocalypse—a belief still held by 10 percent of the world’s population, according to Reuters. “A cycle is ending, but a new one begins, according to the Mayans, who regard their calendar as a series of infinite cycles,” he says.

Saturno’s report, which was funded by BU and the National Geographic Society and which he unveiled in this week’s edition of the journal Science along with colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin and Colgate University, deals with a fascinating trove of calendars and paintings from a Guatemala excavation that have many in the anthropology community hopping with glee. And not just about the delay of the world’s end.

In Xultún, a Mayan dynastic hub, Saturno and his colleagues dug up a small chamber (around 6 by 6 feet with 10-foot ceilings) in a large complex. There they found paintings of festive figures on the walls as well as a large number of delicately painted hieroglyphs and numbers—astronomical tables unlike any such notations seen before.

The notations “got our attention very early on,” says David Stuart, a co-author of the study who specializes in Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas in Austin.

The Science authors believe the excavated room is a work space where a Mayan nerd—a calendar-keeper, astronomer, and scribe—puzzled away, covering two walls with calculations much like today’s scientists do on a whiteboard. The paintings and text date back to the year 800—a remarkable five centuries earlier than the oldest known Mayan hieroglyphic books, the Mayan Codices of the 15th century.

Most intriguingly for modern-day doomsday prophets, the scribblings include four long numbers that represent multiples of set units of time using the Mayan calendar. In one column, time stretches reach 7,000 years into the future. Bingo! The apocalypse myth, says Stuart, is that the Mayan calendar shows the world ending after 13 periods, or 5,000 years, also called baktun. We are supposedly coming up on the end of the last one.

This new find, however, is further proof that that belief is mistaken, says Stuart. The mural shows 17 baktuns, showing “there was a lot more to the Mayan calendar than just 13 baktuns.”

The Mayan calendar reaches far beyond the year 2012, the scientists assure us.

So who was drawing on the walls? The paintings show three life-size seated figures, clad in white loincloths and headdresses with feathers. They are looking upward toward a figure on another wall, painted in orange, with a much more elaborate headdress and jade wristlet, Saturno explains in a Science podcast. Mayan glyphs call this man Younger Brother Obsidian, who Saturno believes could be a relative of the kig—or perhaps the scribe himself. His outstretched hand holds a stylus. He points toward another figure, who is identifiable as the king of Xultún.

“A big role of Mayan kings is to dance,” says Stephen Houston, a Brown University Mayan scholar. At certain points in the year, the king stepped out with an elaborate choreography in full jade-clinking costume. “I don’t see any relation to these weird notations,” says Houston. “I suspect the painting is earlier.”

Did a dressing-room for a king eventually become a scribe’s pad to work out numbers? Maybe. The Science authors think the chamber was a work space, a scriptorium, where books were begun. But Houston wonders. “Frankly, that interpretation does not speak strongly to me,” he says. The tightly patterned organization of the notation is a “very strange find” and appears too careful to be a document draft. Making books would also require plenty of natural light. “It is not a tremendously great work space, because it is dark,” Houston says.

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One might also think these types of chambers are found all over the Mayan region, but “in fact they are not,” Houston says. There is something special happening in the room, a secret that will be understood only after the room’s full inventory has been deciphered.

Six million Mayans still live in Mexico and Guatemala. A handful of their communities, mostly in Guatemala, continue to use the traditional calendar for ritual purposes and divination, says Dartmouth College anthropologist John Watanabe who studies contemporary Maya culture. This new finding “can only deepen the long cultural tradition that living Maya today still preserve,” he says.

What remains fascinating about the Mayans, Houston says, is their endless passage of cycles. Their culture “is really about renewal and continuity—and not about the ending of all days.”