Feature Article

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This fall, Hollywood gave us a vision of the end of the world as supposedly predicted by the Maya. But did they really?

On December 21, 2012, the Maya Long Count Calendar will end a cycle of more than 5,000 years, and according to Hollywood, it means nothing less than the total destruction of the world. In the movie "2012," the earth's core gets cooked by neutrinos, and then dispatches volcanoes and tidal waves to wipe out mankind.

But, as Alfred Hitchcock was famous for saying, "It's only a movie." Did the Maya actually predict the end of the world? For years experts in the ancient Maya have pooh-poohed the concept that the people of Mesoamerica ever believed that the end of their calendar meant the apocalypse.

Archaeologists of the ancient Maya maintain that there is no proof or even indication that the Maya whose civilization flourished in the the first millenium ever held any belief that their 5,000-year calendar was associated with either the creation or destruction of the world.

But that assertion ran contrary to my own research. It seemed to me the Maya were apoplectic about the apocalypse. One of their books, the Chilam Balam (of which several versions exist) contains lengthy descriptions of the end of the world.

Was there any connection to this view of the end of the time and the conclusion of the Maya calendar? I went to Yucatan in search of answers and came away with the following story:

Dramatis Personae

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Don Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul and General Jose Itza, just before we discuss the forthcoming end of the world predicted by the Maya. Photo Evan J. Albright.

The Interview Subjects

Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul was, until his death in 2006, the patriarch of the Barbachanos, a well known family synonymous with tourism on the Yucatan Peninsula. Don Fernando oversaw a vast empire of tourism businesses (hotels, resorts, a travel agency) that he inherited from his father, Fernando Barbachano Peon, long considered the founder of Yucatan tourism, today one of Mexico's largest industries.

These interviews would not have been possible if not for the kind hospitality and wonderful friendship of don Fernando. As you hear in the PodCast, he was thrown into the role of interpreter with mixed results. Despite that, without him I would not have had the opportunity to discuss 2012 with the home team on its own court

General Jose Itza, at the time of this interview, was the elected head of Maya in Felipe Carrillo Puerto (about three hours south of the resort city of Cancun).

The Experts

Dr. Paul Sullivan is a former lecturer in anthropology at Yale University, and is the author of Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) and Xuxub Must Die: The Lost Histories of a Murder on the Yucatan (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). He is currently at work on a book on Maya prophecy.

Dr. Marc Zender is a Research Associate in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, and a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. In November 2009 he gave a delightful lecture, "Much Ado About Nothing: 2012 and the Maya." You can listen to it in its entirety HERE.

Dr. Zender's research interests include anthropological and historical linguistics, comparative writing systems and decipherment (particularly of Mayan and Aztec writing) and Mesoamerican archaeology. Since 1998, Marc has been the project epigrapher for the Proyecto Arqueologico de Comalcalco, directed by Ricardo Armijo Torres, and he has undertaken archaeological, linguistic and epigraphic fieldwork in much of the Maya area, most recently in Copan, Honduras, where he assists Dr. William L. Fash in teaching the Harvard Field School. Marc's recent publications include "One Hundred and Fifty Years of Nahuatl Decipherment" (PARI Journal 8(4): 24-37) and, with Karl Taube, "American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica" (in Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2009).

The Author

Evan J. Albright is a writer on Cape Cod. He is the author of a book on the history of crime on Cape Cod, Mass., and is currently at work on a book on the modern history of the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza. He also manages a Web site devoted to Chichen Itza, americanegypt.com, as well as writes the site's daily blog. He is not an anthropologist or archaeologist, nor does he play one on TV.