Another news report about the Mayan doomsday not happening. Although this passes very thinly as news these days, we can expect more and more of these kinds of stories throughout the year. Despite the almost complete lack on consensus amongst eschatologists as to what is actually going to happen, they can all agree on a date: December 21st 2012.

In this BBC report, the archaeologist interviewed stressed the rarity of the event and possible transformative quality of this calendar change. What I feel is missing, is a good explanation as to why the world is not ending before Christmas. So what could they have said to make the point clear?

1) Analogy

The Mayan long count calendar is organised into five divisions of time; k’in, winal, tun, k’atun and b’ak’tun corresponding to 1, 20, 360, 7,200 and 144,000 days respectively. This is similar to the way we organise the Gregorian calendar: days, months, years, decades, centuries and millenia. This December, the long count calendar is starting another b’ak’tun, which is not too dissimilar to the event of January 1st 2000, launching us into a new millenium in Gregorian terms. Was this culturally significant? Certainly. Was it predictive of natural cataclysm? Not so much.

2) Arbitrarity of calendars

Calendars are abstract human creations designed to help us follow the cycles of the celestial bodies and agricultural periods. While most calendar systems are coherent with external events, such as the seasons or phases of the moon, they are at the end of the day, arbitrary. We divide the year into 365 days, but we could have easily have done this in 366 (in fact, we do this every leap year). Similarly, the length of a b’ak’tun is as much as product of necessesity as of cultual idiosyncrasies in early mesoamerica.

3) Evaluating evidence

The vast majority of claims about what cataclismic events come our way are easily explained by our current scientific knowledge. Nibiru? Doesn’t exist. Meteors? Nothing of significant size is expected. Solar storms? They happen every 11 years and haven’t destroyed the Earth so far. Planetary alignments? We’re not due one for a while, and it shouldn’t make a difference to life on Earth anyway. While this report was on an archaeology conference, we shouldn’t miss the opportunity for communicating good science. If we see extraordinary claims, let us ask for extraordinary evidence. If there is misinformation about ancient cultures let us address it. The Mayan civilization left us an incredible wealth in culture, architecture and the arts, and this is a wonderful opportunity to engage people with it, even if it’s through a slighlty oblique angle.

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A wealth of information on the 2012 phenomenon, eschatology and the long count calendar is available from Wikipedia. For end-of-days debunking, head over to NASA and if you are more the listening type, BBC radio 4’s Material World had a special program on the topic earlier this year.

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