Skip to main content

Disappointed the World Didn’t End?

USC Dornsife anthropologist G. Alexander Moore said the prediction of the world’s demise on Dec. 21, 2012 was based on a misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar.

G. Alexander Moore, professor of anthropology in USC Dornsife, explains why so many people got the Mayan calendar wrong.
G. Alexander Moore, professor of anthropology in USC Dornsife, explains why so many people got the Mayan calendar wrong.

USC Dornsife’s G. Alexander Moore wasn’t surprised to wake up on Dec. 22. The professor of anthropology knew better.

An expert on Mayan civilization and mythology, Moore said the much-hyped alleged Mayan apocalypse traces its roots to how the ancient Mesoamerican people counted time. They had many ways of doing that.

“The so-called ‘end of the calendar’ is only the end of a particular count in a particular calendar — known as the ‘long-count calendar,’ ” Moore said.

Reaching the end of that count — on Dec. 21, 2012 — had no more cosmic significance than your car’s odometer turning over from 999,999 to 000,000.

“It’s not predicting any apocalypse,” he said. “There’s no prediction of anything associated with this calendar.”

The famous Maya codices associated with prophecies of doom date back from just before the Spanish conquest, starting in 1519. By then, though, the long-count calendar was completely unknown to the Maya. It disappeared around 900 A.D. with the collapse of classic Maya culture and its dynastic kings, who had used the calendar to carve their genealogies in stone.

The long-count calendar was only rediscovered a millennium later, when 19th century archaeologists deciphered it from stone carvings.

Skewed Views

Today’s apocalyptic predictions tell us much more about Western civilization than anything about Mayan civilization, Moore said. “The doomsayers are just harping on various millenarian Western traditions having to do with the hankering for the second coming.”

In this case, adherents of New Age spirituality invested an ancient people with knowledge of scientific mysteries they couldn’t possibly have possessed.

“The Mayans were accurate astronomers and very accurate mathematicians,” Moore said. “They had the zero. But they had no algebra, no calculus and no particle physics. They knew nothing about electricity or magnetism. They knew nothing about galaxies.

“Their astronomy was accurate, thanks to careful observation over many centuries. But you cannot read too much into it,” he added. “The notion that they knew when the polar fields would be reversed is absolute nonsense because they weren’t aware of those things.”

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

The Maya themselves likely did not lose any sleep on Dec. 20, Moore said. While no “hands-in-the-dirt” archaeologist, he’s done extensive fieldwork in a Mayan community of the Guatemalan highlands.

“You are never going to find a Maya who will say [the apocalypse] is going to happen,” said Moore, noting that nearly all are Catholics.

After tucking their children into bed Dec. 20, “They knew they would still be here in the morning.”