Dear Librarian…

Tortuguero Monument 6, Right Panel

“Dear Librarian…”  The continuing struggle against one of my oldest enemies in Los Angeles…  IGNORANCE!

Debora H. of Carthay Circle asks:  “We didn’t get wrecked as usual this New Year’s…I’d call it almost a preventive sacrilege.  Most of my friends are under the impression that these are the End Times.  The Mayans predicted the Apocalypse in December 2012, right?  Or should we keep planning for the 2014 Winter Olympics?”

Well…maybe or maybe not.  There are plenty of ways the world could be completely destroyed before the end of the year.  The most likely scenario is a massive supernova within about 20 light years (1 in 240 million) or a gamma-ray burst from a WR star (1 in 300 million).  But you’re asking if the Mayans predicted this event 1300 years ago…and you’ve stumbled upon an irritating bête noire in my life.

The Mayans use three calendars, the Haab’ (a solar calendar), the Tzolk’in (a ritual calendar of 20 symbols repeated 13 times), and the Long Count (a ritual calendar of 144000 days, called a b’ak’tun, repeated 13 times).  If you ask a random Mayan strolling down the sacbe today’s date, they would combine the Tzolk’in and Haab’ names, a cycle that repeats every 52 years, or the “Short Count”.  Dates meant to express a span of more than 50 years could be expressed in the linear Long Count (such as on a monument).  For example, New Year’s Day was 13 Chicchan 13 Kankin in the ordinary Mayan Short Count calendar and in the Long Count.  If you want to try other dates, use this date calculator.

It is not certain that the Mayans thought up the Long Count; they certainly did not create the Short Count, which can be traced to the Olmecs who predated them by a thousand years.  The oldest date we’ve found carved in the Long Count, (6 December 36 BCE), comes from a proto-Mayan ruin in the Olmec part of Chiapas, Mexico.

The only mention of the 21 December 2012 date by the Mayans is on the right panel of Monument 6 (pictured above) at the Mayan ruin of El Tortuguero.  The panel is broken but says something like “the Thirteenth B’ak’tun will be finished on 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in…[something] will occur…it will be the descent of the Nine [supporting?] Gods to [something].”  That’s it.  It’s not clear that anything serious is predicted to occur on the Long Count date of  So what is the significance of that date or the length of the Long Count at all?  What happened on the last

It’s not even certain that the date of the Long Count is 21 December 2012; there is some disagreement over the correlation of the Long Count to our calendar.  The consensus of most archaeologists is that the Long Count began on 11 August 3114 BCE (or about 3600 years before the Mayans actually began using it), a date determined by fixing certain astronomical events that we can determine, such as eclipses of the sun, and by events the Spanish noted during the Conquest also recorded by the Mayans in their Long Count.  But there are other interpretations that move the date of to other dates in our calendar.

In fact, it’s also uncertain that 21 December is the end of the Long Count; the Mayans do not state this explicitly, and often state the opposite, that the Long Count is lineal and not cyclical.  They suggest that a previous Long Count, which probably ended on 11 August 3114 BCE, consisted of 13 b’ak’tuns, or just over 5125 years.  But there is nothing stating that the current Long Count must consist of 13 b’ak’tuns, and the panel carved at El Tortuguero does not state this.  There are Mayan dates carved in Long Count notation which exist millions of years in the future or the past.  However, it is very likely that just to be accommodating the Mayans themselves will probably elect to celebrate with all the hippies that undoubtedly will descend on the Yucatan at the end of this year, just as they visited Chaco Canyon for the Harmonic Convergence and Stonehenge for the Millennium.

How did the Mayans select the possible beginning and end of their Long Count?  They were not around at the beginning; in 3114 BCE the Mesoamericans had just begun moving from Stone Age hunting to agriculture, and their first excavated settlement was a thousand years in the future.  The Early Bronze Age had just begun in Mesopotamia and the first dynasties were forming in Egypt; the Yamna Culture was flourishing in the Ukraine, people had begun to gather along the Indus River, and the future Chinese were beginning to use copper and bronze as well.  Indeed, the previously noted Stonehenge was under construction right around 3100 BCE, as was the Irish monument of Newgrange; in the sense of describing the rise of civilization, the Mayans were right on the money.  To my mind this is the most interesting feature of the Long Count.

If they did not pick the beginning date, perhaps they selected the end?  The Mayans, like many ancient peoples, used their scientific prowess to show off to their neighbors.  I’ve heard that the local Chumash tribes north of Los Angeles would keep a close eye on the weather off the coast, and then report their predictions to the Shoshone tribes living in the desert; not merely as a friendly gesture, but so the Shoshone believed the Chumash could control the weather.  The Mayans, likewise, probably used their extraordinary astronomical calculations to intimidate their neighbors.  Their observatories are rightly famous, and their calculations of the motions of the Moon and Venus were the best in the ancient world.  There isn’t an astronomical event that corresponds to the beginning of the Long Count, but there is one at the end; the crossing of the Sun over the intersection of the galactic ecliptic and the solar ecliptic during the Winter Solstice.

Without going into too much detail, the Earth wobbles on its axis; the North Pole is now aimed at the star Polaris, but in 13000 years it will be pointed at the star Vega, and then back to Polaris around 26000 CE.  As the pole wobbles, the two solstices and equinoxes also move, so in 13000 years the shortest day of the year would be in June rather than December.  Every year the Sun would appear in a slightly earlier spot than the year before, moving about one degree back every seventy years.  The first person to describe this motion of the Sun was Hipparchus, the creator of trigonometry, who lived in Ionia about 2200 years ago.  It seems impossible to believe that the astronomers of ancient Babylon and Egypt did not realize precession was taking place; in Egypt some older temples were actually rebuilt to realign with certain stars that moved over the centuries.  There is no evidence that the Mayans were aware of precession except one:  the Long Count.

As the Sun moves around the sky, twice a year it crosses the plane of the galaxy, and by coincidence one of those crossings is fairly close to the center of the Milky Way.  If they had been keenly aware of precession, the Mayans could have calculated when the Sun would cross this point on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice.  Such precision was not available in Europe until the 18th Century.  More than any prediction of calamity, the idea that the Mayans figured this motion out so well just a few years after the Greeks is the true genius of 2012, and what I will be celebrating on 21 December.

The first I heard of this Mayan calendar was in the mid-1970s, when movies and television promoted theories of “ancient astronauts” who helped our ancestors to build the Pyramids and scratched lines across the plains of Nazca, Peru.  The underlying premise that it was impossible for humans, especially humans in the Americas, to build structures of such sophistication and mathematical ability thousands of years ago is definitely arrogant and not a little racist; a premise I reject completely.  I prefer to be awed by the accomplishments of our predecessors and the circularity of our “progress”.

Pictogram in Tassili, Sahara Desert, c. 6000 BCE

However, I was ten years old in 1975, and could be blown away by the enticing theories of “Chariots of the Gods” and “In Search of…” that we were not alone, and soon to be liberated from the tyranny of our loneliness.  One of those films, “The Outer Space Connection”, rather chillingly narrated by a dying Rod Serling, ended by noting that the Mayan Calendar ends on 24 December 2011, and perhaps on that date our friends from beyond will return.  At the age of ten I could barely conceive of this date.  I had only just recognized that I would be 35 in the year 2000, far off and quite old, and 2011 seemed impossibly distant.  Indeed, the span from 1975 to 2011 was probably the longest I ever measured in my life; I have no further dates to look forward to, beyond the pedantic counting of decades, 2020, 2030, 2040…nothing with any nostalgic significance.  No more 1984, or 1999, or 2001.

I can’t remember the next time I became aware of the end of the Long Count, or that it had mysteriously moved from 24 December 2011 to 21 December 2012.  The archaeologist Michael Coe used the prior date until 1980, when he changed it to 11 January 2013, and then changed it again to 23 December 2012.  The 21 December 2012 date comes from the 1983 edition of The Ancient Maya by Sylvanus Morley, one of the first archaeologists to conflate the end of the Long Count with the end of the world.  All of these dates fall within the decades that the Sun has spent slowly moving across the intersection of the galactic equator and the solar ecliptic.  That said, there is absolutely no evidence that the Mayans planned the Long Count to end during the crossing of the Winter Solstice over that intersection; they did not have an accurate measure of the galactic equator, and they must have known that because of the sun’s width in the sky, it would take almost four decades to cross it completely.  Nevertheless, I prefer to think that the Mayans were aware of precession and hid that knowledge in the Long Count.  Why they picked 2012 (if they did) instead of 2013 or 2011 or 1987 will probably always be a mystery. They may have been trying to fix a round Long Count date to an important event in their time, most likely, which was around 13 March 830 CE.

So essentially, on 21 December 2012 a minor astronomical event which has been happening every year since the early 1980s during the Winter Solstice will occur again, as possibly predicted by the Mayans a thousand years ago, and may or may not be the date that their calendar resets to zero.  That’s it.  Oh…and YOU HAVE 345 DAYS TO LIVE!  MUAHAHA!

I hope that answers your question, Debora…and yes, I’m planning on watching the greatest skier in California history, Julia Mancuso, rip up the snow above Sochi in February 2014.

Joel J. Rane

About Joel J. Rane

Now I'm at work, now I'm at home, now I'm asleep, let's wake up and write something.
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5 Responses to Dear Librarian…

  1. Donna Lethal Donna Lethal says:

    As a fellow ignorance-hater, I’m really enjoying this column, Joel.

  2. Wow. That is a lot of information that I didn’t know. Thanks for the hard work.

    First, what is the difference between linear and lineal?

    Second, and I should probably be drunk to have this conversation, we are already tilted on our axis around 23 degrees. For the shortest day of the year to be in June, wouldn’t we have to completely wobble 23 degrees the other way? What is the max wobble?

    Third, not to get all pedantic and risk your wrath, the North Celestial Pole doesn’t hit Polaris, but somewhere nearby. I’m sure you were just simplifying it for the others.

    • Joel says:

      1) There is no difference and I probably would have changed one if I not been trying to finish this at 2 AM on a school night. There are a lot of little annoying mistakes but falling asleep at work is worse.

      2) The shortest day of the year will never actually be in June; that why we have that complicated formula for leap years (every year divisible by 4 except those divisible by 100, unless it can also be divided by 400). The object is to keep the Vernal Equinoxe around 21 March. However, the axis of the Earth does wobble (like a top about to fall over) and that will continue; so it will still be inclined 23 degrees, just pointing a different way. (Well, it does move slightly from about 21 to 24 degrees on a different cycle…)

      BTW, all the planets probably precess, but much less (since they don’t have something as proportionately large as the Moon tugging on them). The only one we’re sure of is Mars, because that’s the only critter we’ve been hanging around long enough to calculate how fast it wobbles.

  3. …and thus the Weeble was invented!

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