Why December 21st, 2012?

One of the biggest, most widely regarded Doomsday prophecies was the belief that ancient Mayans predicted the world would end on December 21, 2012. It was attached to all kinds of theories, like planets colliding with Earth, or magnetic pole reversals, to all-out nuclear war. Various polls that were conducted discovered that as many as 1 in 7 people believed that the date was going to be the end of the world. Things only got worse as the days marched on. As the middle of December 2012crept closer, instead of saving their money for retirement, people of all walks of life were buying fallout shelters or stockpiling canned goods. Others simply lived it up and figured the heck with consequences. What difference would it make if everything ceased to exist that day anyway?

Those people probably wish they could go back in time and make some different life choices.

To state the obvious: the world didn’t end. Which begs the question: who got it wrong, us or the ancient Mayans?

To answer that, we have to make a few points clearer. First, let’s find out where people got the date from in the first place. The Mayans had a pretty sophisticated dating system we call the Mesoamerican (or Mayan) Long Count calendar. They chose a mythical creation date (long story) corresponding to roughly August 11th, 3114 BCE. Their long count calendar calculated how many days past the creation date any given day was, and it covered what they considered to be a Great Cycle—5,125 years.

Guess when the cycle ended?

December 21st, 2012.

OK, so that’s how people got the date. Now, let’s figure out how we got from there to the world ending. Well, some people (not necessarily scholars or scientists) interpreted the fact that the calendar ‘ended’ as significant. They surmised that if the calendar ended, it was ballgame over, roll credits, The End. In other words, they decided to interpret the fact that Long Count Calendar ended to mean that the Mayans were actually saying that the world was going to end. They said it loudly and often. A group that believed the planet Nibiru was going to collide with Earth and end the world in 2003 latched on to that date when it turned out they were wrong the first time.

The concept was flawed from the very beginning. To give you a modern-day equivalent: imagine somebody coming into your house, looking at a wall calendar, and assuming that because the calendar ended on the 31st of December, that nothing came after that date. Imagine what they would do next:go on the internet and announce that the world will end because there aren’t any dates past the 31st of December of this year. And other people will agree with them because that’s how the internet works, and because they looked at pictures of your wall calendar and saw that there was nothing after the 31st of December. When you look at it that way, it seems pretty ridiculous, right?

What do we actually do when the calendar ends? Have a New Year’s party and buy another one! That’s basically what the ancient Mayans believed. They figured that there would be a celebration to denote the end of a Great Cycle, and then there’d be another. We know this because scholars and scientist have found Mayan inscriptions that sometimes referenced future dates, even past 2012. Most of these were listed as “distance dates,” made through a combination of a Long Count date and a distance number. Proof that the Mayans didn’t believe the world was going to end when their Long Calendar stopped.

It was just an excuse to party, then start another Great Cycle.