Human beings have been predicting the end of the world almost since the dawn of time. The first instance known to historians took place in 634 BCE when it was foretold in ancient Rome that the world would cease 120 years hence. Since then, at least 199 other such predictions have been issued. To date, not one has been borne out. “The amazing thing is that after thousands of years, somebody will come up with another prediction of this sort and there will still be people out there who believe it,” exclaimed Javier Rivera, astronomer-in-residence at Santa Barbara’s Natural History Museum.
Rivera expressed his jovial incredulity to a small gathering of would-be stargazers who jammed into the museum’s planetarium-cum-Santa Barbara diorama. They had assembled to hear Rivera’s thoughts on the much heralded Maya doomsday scenario, in which the final cataclysmic curtain comes crashing down on Planet Earth December 21 this year. According to Rivera, a native of Mexico, there is no historical, ethnographic, or astrological basis to support the Maya end-of-the-world prediction. Even more, he said, there’s no evidence to suggest the Mayas themselves ever made such a conjecture. “I am not here to persuade you of anything,” he said more than once. “I’m only here to tell you the facts.”
The fact is, Rivera said, the Mayas did believe that December 21, 2012, day marked the beginning of a new stage of human existence, and this belief was explicitly reflected in what’s known as the Mayas’ Long Count calendar. (That this transition would occur on the Winter Solstice of December 21 was merely a coincidence, Rivera insisted.) That was one of three calendars invented and used by the Mayas, a scientifically sophisticated civilization that thrived throughout the Yucatán Peninsula from about 250-900 CE.
The Long Count calendar, Rivera explained, broke human existence up into four distinct stages, each defined by the materials from which the gods chose to make human beings — mud, wood, or corn—and the propensity of humans to worship — or not worship — their gods. The last day of the Mayas’ Fourth Stage is December 20, 2012. The first day of Stage Five is December 21. Nowhere in any Maya writing, Rivera said, is there a prediction for the end of the world; there is simply no Long Count calendar for the next stage.
Based on the absence of any new calendar, Rivera said, pioneering Maya scholar Michael A. Coe first suggested (in 1966) that there could be an apocalyptic connotation to the end of Stage Four. Other writers — especially those in the ’70s inclined to fuse the study of ancient indigenous cultures with the ingestion of mood-altering drugs — would seize upon this. What made the Mayas especially susceptible to such doomsday distortions, Rivera said, was the specificity of the date. He also noted that according to the Maya Long Count calendar, the Third Stage of human existence came to a close on August 11 in the year 3014 BCE. “What happened at the end of the Third Stage?” he asked. “Nothing! The world didn’t come to an end.”
The Mayas were accomplished mathematicians and astronomers, and they made many astrological predictions that were proved accurate. But they were not prone, Rivera stressed, to making prophesy about what would transpire on Earth. They did know for certain that it took 365 days for Earth to circle the sun. But according to the Mayas’ main secular calendar, a year had 18 months, each with 20 days. But that’s only 360 days. To reconcile that gap, the Mayas observed the last five days of each year by doing absolutely nothing. But on the day afterward, he said, they held a great party. Based on that, Rivera suggested the Mayas would have observed the dawning of the 21st—and the Fifth Stage of human existence — by holding a really “huge party,” starting, he said, at precisely 3 a.m.
Rivera also took issue with the main “scientific” theories detailing exactly how Earth will meet its demise on the December 21. One explanation holds that the planet will get sucked into a black hole four million times as massive as the Sun located at the center of our galaxy. Rivera disputed that the black hole was located where the doom ’n’ gloomers said it was, and he said that it posed no threat. Likewise, he dispatched the solar flare-up theory, pointing out that the universe experienced far more consistently intense solar energy back in the 1960s than now. Alternately, he noted, we’re projected to experience a major solar event sometime next spring. While that could prove disruptive, he argued, it won’t be the end of the world. And it certainly won’t be December 21.
Some advocates of the Maya doomsday scenario have suggested that Earth might be hit by a giant asteroid, often called the Planet X theory. The closest of all the known celestial bodies capable of delivering a knockout punch is traveling on an orbit about 4 million miles away from Earth and so wouldn’t even hit until next Spring, several months after the Maya meltdown.
People are entitled to believe what they want, Rivera acknowledged. The problem lies in the preparations undertaken by some believers. One spiritual leader predicting the end was nigh urged her followers to euthanize their pets. As a result, the world definitely ended for a number of dogs and cats but not their owners.
As for Rivera himself, he’s been through the great Y2K scare at the turn of the millennium when absolutely nothing happened. But given the stubborn durability of end-of-the-world predictions, sooner or later, one will eventually be proved correct. Rivera isn’t holding his breath. “The sun will begin to die in about two-and-a-half billion years,” he said. “I’d say that gives at least a good million left.”
By Paul Wellman