COLUMBIA — The Mayan long-count calendar has created a stir among those believing the world will end Friday. Most scholars of the Mayans have tried to assure folks that imminent apocalypse is just not so.
During a talk at the Columbia Public Library on Wednesday evening, Robert Smale, a MU professor of Latin American history, said that not even the Mayans believed the world would end this year. The Mayan calendar does not "run out," but starts from year zero and has no end, similar to the Gregorian calendar, he said.
"I want to dispel any anxiety or tension you might have about the date of Dec. 21, 2012, feeling that the predicted end of the world is upon us," Smale said. "I can tell you definitively from the Mayan texts that we have, books that we have, inscriptions, that the Mayas never predicted an apocalypse, cataclysm, a last judgment or an end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012."
The Mayans and their predecessors, the Olmec, figured out the concept of zero hundreds of years before other parts of the world including the Mediterranean and Europe. But the confusion about the end of the world occurred because the same marker used to indicate zero also could be used for 13.
The Mayan long-count calendar has names for certain chunks of time. A baktun is a unit of time that represents close to 400 years. On Friday, there will have been 13 baktuns passed since the Mayan "year zero." The baktun is the largest chunk of time depicted on most long-count calendars, but there are also pictuns, or 20 baktuns.
Smale explained that the fear surrounding the end-of-the-world scenario started in the 1960s, before the great revolution in Mayan studies. Smale said Mayanist Michael Coe may be responsible for the hubbub surrounding the end of the world and that Coe "perhaps misspoke."
"This was before the advances in decipherment in classic Maya writing and inscriptions," Smale said. "He only speculated as to how the Mayan people might have envisioned the end of 13 baktuns."
Smale quoted Coe: "This, our present universe, would be annihilated when the great cycles of the long-count reached completion."
Since Coe made his claims, scholars have been able to decipher ancient Mayan glyphs and have found examples of Mayan calendars with the potential to extend into the future indefinitely.
"Coe's ideas have been thoroughly debunked by Mayanists," Smale said. "Most long-count inscriptions only go up to baktuns, but there are some that go higher."