Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 26, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Primer on the Mayan Calendar


Introduction

One may ask why I chose for my second installment on Planet X to discuss the Mayan calendar. What could they possibly have in common?

Well, nothing. But, in popular culture, the two are often linked together. After Planet X was supposed to hit us in 2003, the date shifted to 2012, when in popular culture the Mayan calendar is supposed to end. About half of the various claims I’ve seen about Planet X in the past few years are linked to 2012 and the supposed doomsday that will occur in 2012, and so, to have something to refer back to when I address those claims, I want to do this post giving an overview of the Mayan calendar system and why it does not end in 2012.

All posts in this series:

An Overview

Being able to keep track of the passage of time is very important to our modern society. For one thing, computer networks and the internet would not function if we could not keep track of time. People could not get paid, students couldn’t take 1-hour classes, and you would never know when to show up for your airplane flight or bus trip. The concept of the passage of time is inexorably linked with modern existence.

It was also important to ancient civilizations. It told them when to plant crops. It allowed them to predict when winter was coming. They knew when to pray or practice other aspects of religion. Practically every ancient civilization had a calendar system, including the Mayans.

The Mayan calendar system was particularly accurate and complex for its time. It was adopted by other Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Aztecs and Toltec in lieu of their own.

The calendar is based on three different dating systems that are used in parallel: The Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), and the Haab (civil calendar). Of these, the Haab was the only one that actually related to the length of the year.

One could represent a date on the Mayan calendar as “12.18.16.2.6, 3 Cimi 4 Zotz.” The initial 5 numbers represent the Long Count, the next number and word are the Tzolkin, and the next number and word are the Haab.

The Long Count

The Long Count is a mixed base-20/base-18 representation of a number, representing the number of days since the start of the Mayan era. This is similar to Julian Days (the number of days since the start of the Julian Calendar in 4713 BC).

The base unit is the kin (day), which is the last component of the Long Count (the fifth “decimal” in the example above). Going from right to left, the next four components are the uinal, tun, katun, baktun.

Once the kin ticked past 20, then the uinal number would increase by 1 (much like after 59 minutes and 59 seconds, our hour increases by 1). A tun was made of 18 uinals, or 360 kin (days). A katun was made of 20 tuns, 7,200 kin, or about 20 years. A baktun was made of 20 katuns, which is equal to 144,000 days, or approximately 394 years. A full cycle of 13 baktuns lasts 1,872,000 days, approximately 5125 years.

Note that kin, tun, and katun are numbered from 0 through 19, uinal are numbered 0 through 17, and baktun are numbered 1 through 13.

The Tzolkin (Divine Calendar)

The Tzolkin date system is based on a 260-day “year,” where years were not counted consecutively. Each date is a combination of two “week” lengths. A numbered week had 13 days, where days were numbered 1-13, while a named week had 20 days, and their names were: Ahau, Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchan, Cimi, Manik, Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Caban, Etznab, and Caunac.

Since there were 20 named “week-days,” and there are 20 kin in the Long Count, there is a synchrony or redundancy between the two. If, for example, the Long Count were 1.5.10.3.4, then it must be Kan, as well.

The Haab (Civil Calendar)

The Haab consisted of a 365-day year that was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, followed by 5 extra days (the Uayeb). The Haab years were not counted consecutively. The names of the months, in order, were Pop, Uo, Zip, Zotz, Tzec, Xul, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Zac, Ceh, Mac, Kankin, Muan, Pax, Kayab, and Cumku.

A number prefaced the name of the month, between 0 and 19, to indicate which day it was. The use of a 0th day is unique to the Mayan system. It also shows that they had developed the concept of zero centuries before Europe or Asia (a good book on zero is “The Nothing that Is”).

Although the civil year was 365 days, it is believed the Mayans did know that the year is closer to 365.242 days long since many of the month names are associated with seasons, though they would quickly be off within a few decades if this were not taken into account.

The Haab and Txolkin calendar years lined up only once every 18,980 days (52 years), and this is known as the “Calendar Round.” Each restart of the Calendar Round was a time of public panic where they thought the world may be coming to an end.

When Did the Calendar “Start?”

No one really knows. Logically, the first date of the Long Count should be 0.0.0.0.0, but because the baktun are numbered 1 through 13, the first date is actually written as 13.0.0.0.0.

Authorities disagree on when the last 13.0.0.0.0 actually was. Today, most of the world follows the Gregorian calendar system. In the Gregorian system, there are three possible dates for when 13.0.0.0.0 last was: August 13, 3114 BC; August 11, 3114 BC; or October 15, 3374 BC. If you assume that the first two are most likely to be correct (since they agree best with each other), then the next time the Mayan calendar restarts (not “ends”) will be December 21 or 23, 2012. Gasp!!

Oh … but wait. That’s not true. If you actually do the math (I did it by using a Julian Date calculator and added 1,872,000 days to August 13, 3114 BC), you get it restarting on November 27, 2012. Or subtract two days if you believe the second date given.

So, Doomsday in 2012?

No.

This was first popularized by a man named José Argüelles who has a Ph.D. in art history and aesthetics. His claim to doomsday fame came in 1987 with his book, Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology. Note that he was NOT, by any means the first to predict doomsday or even to really specify a time around 2012, but he was the first (at least in my research) who tied it in with the Mayan calendar … or at least his reading of the Mayan calendar.

There is no Mayanist scholar who agrees with Argüelles. There are many different criticisms aimed at him, with the basic one being that he merely takes the ancient tradition and wraps it in New Age terms that were completely unintended nor documented y the Mayans. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about not counting correctly. According to the mathematician Michael Finley:

“Since the 365 day Maya haab makes no provision for leap years, its starting date in the Gregorian Calendar advances by one day every four years. The beginning of Arguelles’ year is fixed to July 26. Thus his count of days departs from the haab as it was known to Maya scribes before the Spanish conquest. Arguelles claims that the Thirteen Moon Calendar is synchronized with the calendar round. Clearly, it is not.”

Argüelles has countered the criticism by simply re-stating his claims.

But … What About Doomsday in 2012?

As I stated above, there is simply no basis for the claims. It’s a pop culture phenomenon that has no basis in science, has no basis in reality, and has no basis in the cultural history which it claims to be based upon (so the false premise logical fallacy). Regardless, it has unfortunately taken on a life of its own.

To quote another Mayanist scholar, Sandra Noble:

“For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle,” says Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies in Crystal River, Fla. To render Dec. 21, 2012, as a doomsday or moment of cosmic shifting, she says, is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.”

Final Thoughts

I hope this primer on how the Mayans counted days, “weeks,” “months,” “years,” and general cycles has been useful. If nothing else, I will likely refer to it in future posts about Planet X as most doomsday predictions with Planet X have tied it into Argüelles’ claims about the Mayan calendar.

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