The History of Mathematics

Mesopotamian Numbers and Mathematics

Does the Mayan calendar predict the end of the Earth?

Everyone likes a good mystery, and there seems to be one associated with the Mayan calendar. According to some interpretations, on December 21, 2012, the Mayan calendar “ends,” thus predicting a catastrophic end of the earth, mainly through a series of astronomical events—anything from destructive solar flares to asteroid strikes. This theory is based on what is called the Mayan “Long Count Calendar,” the longest period calendar so far found in the many calendars the culture developed.

The Long Count Calendar was used to document past and future Mayan events. Some of their shorter calendars were based on 52 years, or what would be thought of as a generation. Mathematically speaking, the Mayans determined that the Long Count Calendar would be “finished” after 5,126 years, but that is only its first cycle. Some modern interpretations predict that if, according to our current calendar, the Mayans began the calendar at 3114 B.C.E., then 5126 - 3114 is the year 2012—thus, the warnings, articles, books, and movies predicting the end of the world by that date. The actual day, December 21, was chosen because, everyone assumes, it’s the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice. But the actual date seems to be a moving target—in other words, it also could be December 23, based on the interpretation of 13 buctuns (a Mayan division of time), or close to 5,125.26 years.

But it doesn’t take a mathematician (or a rocket scientist) to realize the immediate flaws. First, such catastrophes don’t usually fall so neatly into a human interpretation of time—Mayans or not. Second, our present calendar has had so many changes and iterations, how can anyone truly “coordinate” the correct date for the catastrophe-filled day? (For more information about the many calendars over time, see elsewhere in this chapter.) And even then, not every translation of the Mayan calendar has been verified. In fact, interpreting the events during Mayan civilization based on their calendar(s) has been questioned by many researchers. The Mayans may have been excellent astronomers, but some of their mathematical skills and translations still remain a mystery to modern scientists.


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