Monday, 5 November 2012

The 2012 Mayan Calendar Misreading

This is a cross-post from my personal blog at

Here’s the headline story: the world has as much chance of ending in December 2012 as it does in any other year. None of the best minds in any civilisation, ever, have been able to predict the types of events that destroy civilisations with any sort of accuracy. Modern risk assessment experts can’t agree within five orders of magnitude on the likelihood of a specific hazardous outcome for a specific factory, but even they are yards ahead of the Meso-American calendar makers, who were focusing on things a little more certain, like the phases of the moon and the orbit of Venus.

The Mayan civilisation kept calendars for the same reasons that any civilisation likes to keep track of time:
  • To attach dates to things in order to keep some sort of history (the “Long Count” calendar)
  • To keep track of the seasons and manage a civilisation heavily dependent on crop management (the “Haab”, or civil calendar)
  • To keep track of the moon and Venus – they didn’t really cotton on to the idea of planets – (the “Tzolkin”).
The Long Count calendar didn’t need any sort of careful mathematics. They just declared a particular date to be the start (no one can tell for sure anymore exactly what date that was) and started counting. This calendar doesn’t match up with anything in the real world, it just keeps ticking. If the Mayan civilisation were still around, this calendar would be used to put on the front of newspapers or on the timestamp on photos.

The Haab required careful records to work out how long a year was. They did a better job than the Romans did a few centuries later, but it wasn’t perfect. This is the calendar that would need leap-year style corrections to keep it lined up with the seasons if it was still in use today.

The Tzolkin required careful records of the rising and setting times of Venus. They probably used this calendar to work out “good luck days” and “bad luck days”, when to go to war and whether to shake hands with passing European Conquistadors. Evidently, this calendar was very good predicting moonrise, and rubbish at predicting anything actually useful.

Now, if anyone tells you that “THE WORLD IS GOING TO END!” because the Mayan calendar predicts it, they’re talking about the Long Count Calendar. Remember, this is the calendar that doesn’t even predict Summer, or the full moon. It’s just there so people know what the date is. By some interpretations (remember, no one actually knows when this calendar was meant to start counting from), this calendar will need an extra digit sometime soon. This is just like the  Y2K bug – only no one uses any Mayan computers, so there’s no bug. So 2012 marks the Mayan Y2k NotaBug.

The Mayan’s did try to predict the future, but they got it right just as often as anyone else – exactly as often as if they’d just guessed or made it all up. And their guesses had nothing to do with 2012 or any other date in our near future.

Good sources on the topic:

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