Mayans avert their own apocalypse

Mayan Zodiac Circle ©Wikimedia Commons; Image credit: theilr

We all know that there wasn't going to be an apocalypse in the first place; calendars end every year but don't cause the end of time itself. In ten thousand years, people might find this and think that we predicted the end of all things. Perhaps we did.

But now the Mayans have pulled another trick out of their bag, and this one is a better calendar, that goes on for longer.

Now, the news has been out for a couple of weeks, but there are many things that are actually pretty interesting about this specific project and discovery that are of note. And it's also a major discovery beyond the 'apocalypse' rubbish, for two major reasons.

It's firstly important as a discovery because this find is double the age of the previous Mayan calendar. The previous (and only) Mayan calendar was made around 1492 (alternatively, 1300 to 1521, depending on the source), whilst this one dates back to 813AD, at least in part. It turns out that dating calendars is pretty easy business (who knew?).

Secondly, it's a lot older, more detailed and more comprehensive than its 'predecessor', and explains a lot about Mayan astronomy. For instance, lots of the dates are multiples of 177 and 178, which are important. There are tables of lunar cycles that stretch for around 935 years, including a 4784 day cycle of lunar phases, split into 27 columns (all overseen by three moon gods) and tables of planetary cycles opposite that span for 6,703 years - to around 7500AD (a little after December 2012). It has also unlocked information about the 20-day "winal" time unit and the single-day "k'in" unit, as well as the 360-day "tun" unit and 178-day lunar periods, all helping to understand Mayan beliefs, religion, astronomy and culture to new levels.

The site itself at Xultun was known to archaeologists as early as 1915, and wasn't even avoided by experts. The nature of the site, and the fact that it was looted quite heavily during the 1970s, meant that many people had given up on the site housing anything interesting. But one day at lunch, undergraduate student Max Chamberlain announced an intention to find paintings by using the looters' tunnels - to which Mayan expert and team leader William Saturno scoffed, noting that the shallow buildings would have lost paint centuries before. The undergrad was proved right, though, and as Saturno himself put it, "Ta-da! A Technicolor, fantastically preserved mural."

Various other findings have come to light, but the team look set to take another couple of decades excavating over 12 square miles of buildings and providing even more astounding and early records of what life (and religion) would have been like in early Mayan periods.

But as for the apocalypse, it's just more proof that there was never anything to the story in the first place. "We keep looking for endings," expedition leader Saturno explained. "The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It's an entirely different mindset." So, in many ways, the Mayans were actually trying to prove that the apocalypse wasn't imminent, and evidence suggests that in "a period of intense drought" this evidence was actually quite important to the king.

Explaining the specifics, Saturno went on to compare the calendar to the odometer in a normal car, ticking over from 99,999 to 0. "You go 'yay'," he said, "but the car just doesn’t disappear."

And hopefully by 7,516 AD it'll still be clear that no prediction of armageddon was ever made.

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