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What Did Mayans Think Would Happen in 2012?

What Did Mayans Think Would Happen in 2012?
What is supposed to happen in 2012? Will the world end? Does it mark the dawn of a new age of consciousness? We speak to the author of "2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya."

Mark Van Stone will hold a lecture on "2012 - What the Maya Really Prophesied" this Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the San Diego Museum of Man.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): You’re listening to These Days on KPBS in San Diego. I’m Alison St John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Dire warnings are going around about what may happen in the year 2012 based on what some folk have divined from the ancient Mayan calendar. Some says 2012 could be cataclysmic—we've seen a blockbuster movie based on that hypothesis. Others wonder if it might be a year of transformation for the human race, certainly the problems we now face do seem to call for some kind of transformation. But our guest this segment, Dr. Mark Van Stone, a Mayan scholar, has a different perspective. He’s professor of Art History at Southwestern College here in San Diego, and the author of a new book, "2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya." Mark, welcome to These Days.

DR. MARK VAN STONE (Author): Thank you, glad to be here.

ST JOHN: So now this is a beautiful book, full of illustrations. Tell us, why did you decide to write it? What’s the fascination with Maya culture?

DR. VAN STONE: I’ve been interested in the Maya for 25 years now and my colleagues have been, what should I say, bemused by the interest in the 2012 thing and most of them felt that it was not something that they should touch. They thought this would besmirch their reputations, and I thought this is a great opportunity to bring attention to the real Maya.

ST JOHN: So you have been fascinated by Maya for quite awhile. What are some of the information that you see out there about what the calendar tells us about 2012?

DR. VAN STONE: Well, the interesting thing is that of all the ancient Maya prophecies and things none of them seem to say that the world is going to end, and the one that explicitly mentions – the one ancient inscription that explicitly mentions 2012 says that a god, whose name is Bolon Yokte, which means something like ‘many are his supports,’ will come down and get dressed up.

ST JOHN: That’s it?

DR. VAN STONE: That’s it. That’s all it says.

ST JOHN: That’s the prophecy that so many people have been overlaying. There must be more to it about the…

DR. VAN STONE: There is more to it.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

DR. VAN STONE: In fact, that particular date, the December 21st, 2012, is, in the Maya calendar, a very significant number, thirteen, zero, zero, zero, zero. And the reason that modern scholars and others believe that this is going to be a transformational date is because it’s been counting up for 5,000 years since the beginning of this creation, and that the date of this creation is not written as 0000 but as 13000, and like a clock at midnight, it supposedly restarted on that date.

ST JOHN: So the Maya seems to have been very interested in time, didn’t they?

DR. VAN STONE: They were.

ST JOHN: They seem to have a lot of different kinds of chronologies. I mean, we have hours, minutes, days, weeks, years, but they had these big, long cycles. When did the cycle that is supposed to end in 2012 begin?

DR. VAN STONE: That began in 3114 B.C. on August 11th.

ST JOHN: Does anyone know why it began then?

DR. VAN STONE: There’s a lot of theories. August 11th is the kind of day that on a certain part of the Maya realm, the sun is directly overhead at noon. It’s called a solar zenith. And, in fact, the solar zeniths in that latitude, which is 14.28 degrees north, the solar zeniths are 260 days apart and that may have had something to do with the creation of a different Maya calendar, the most important Maya calendar, the 260-day cycle.

ST JOHN: So actually, the one that ends in 2012 is not the most important Maya cycle.

DR. VAN STONE: No, it’s called the long count and it was only used for a short time during the Maya, how shall I say, the Maya classic period and it was not used by other peoples of the Mesoamerica. Whereas the 260 day cycle, which just goes around and around like a very long week is very important to all Mesoamerican peoples.

ST JOHN: 260 days, why 260 days?

DR. VAN STONE: That’s an excellent question, and no one really has a good answer. 260 days is close to the period of human gestation. It’s close to the period of from planting to harvesting corn at certain altitudes. And, like I said, the – at 14.28 degrees North, the two solar zeniths, the two days of the year that the sun are directly overhead are 260 days apart.

ST JOHN: We’re talking to Dr. Mark Van Stone, who has written a book called "2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya." If you have any comments or questions, we’d love to hear from you. The number is 1-888-895-5727. So the cycle that began in 2114, is that right, B.C.?

DR. VAN STONE: That’s right.

ST JOHN: That was a cycle that related to a kind of human, is that right?

DR. VAN STONE: Yes. Well, maybe. There’s a book that talks about the creations of the world, and there are four according to this book. It’s called the Popolvuh, P-o-p-o-l-v-u-h. And the Popolvuh tells us that the first creation of the world had no people at all. It was just animals…


DR. VAN STONE: …and the gods were unhappy with that. They destroyed that and started over, made people out of mud. Mud people were washed away in the rain. The next creation, they made people out of wood. And then they were unhappy with those people so they created this race of people out of corn. So we’re all a sort of tamale.

ST JOHN: Which is – actually goes along with what’s actually happening. I mean, we have corn incorporated into our foodstuff so much more now.

DR. VAN STONE: A very good point.

ST JOHN: So is there any sense that the Maya spoke about what would be the next cycle? Is that the one that would start in 2012?

DR. VAN STONE: There actually is not any evidence about what the Maya said about the next cycle. I’ve been looking for a long time and I know where to look…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

DR. VAN STONE: …for evidence of Maya prophecies about what will happen in the next cycle. The Aztecs had five cycles. They believed that this creation would end in a giant earthquake and that there would be nothing afterwards. The Aztecs literally believed in the end of the world. But they believed in the end of the world coming in perhaps 2027. So if nothing happens in 2012, you’ve got another date to look forward to.

ST JOHN: Oh, my goodness. So it seems like we always are looking for some date when a big cataclysmic event is going to happen. I mean, did the Aztecs have a completely separate system from the Maya? Or did they adopt some of the Maya thinking?

DR. VAN STONE: The Aztecs probably adopted the Maya mythology and enhanced it and changed it. As I said, they changed dates. And one of the things that I found, to my surprise, when studying these – the evidence, was that everybody seemed willing to change all sorts of things. You know, you can’t really count on – I really think that you can’t really count on this Maya cycle even if it does come to an end, which I don’t believe the Maya mostly believe. But they would’ve changed the dates according to political expedience, which is what the Aztecs did. And the Aztecs had one date and the Mixtecs had another date, and the Maya had another date, and why believe any one of them?

ST JOHN: So why do you think the Maya were so fascinated by time? I mean, was this a way to help them understand the world around them? Seems like they used cycles and calendars and dates more than we do.

DR. VAN STONE: That’s a very good observation. Almost half of any Maya inscription is going to be devoted to the keeping of time. I mean, it was much more important to them than it is to us. They counted the days between events. And as often as not, the – when we’re able to figure out what the number of days means, it’s often a magic number, a multiple of their magic numbers, which were 9, 7, 13, 20, 73 and many other magic numbers. It seems like the number of days between events on their monuments are multiples of these numbers.

ST JOHN: And are these arbitrary? Or are mathematicians fascinated by these numbers, too?

DR. VAN STONE: That’s an excellent question. I think 20’s just a, how shall I say, 20’s the number of fingers and toes. It was…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

DR. VAN STONE: …the basis of their numbering system. 13, Lord knows. They had 13 constellations but that’s probably after the numbers.

ST JOHN: So when you’re deciphering these stones because, is it true to say that much of what’s left is all carved in stone, right?

DR. VAN STONE: That’s right.

ST JOHN: And the glyphs, is that what you call them?

DR. VAN STONE: Yes. Hieroglyphs, yes.

ST JOHN: The hieroglyphs are really fascinating. Each one is like a little picture, isn’t it?


ST JOHN: And I believe that there’s a whole branch of academic, you know, study to try to figure out what these glyphs mean.

DR. VAN STONE: Oh, yes.

ST JOHN: You’ve spent a lot of time on that. Is it pretty much decided now what those glyphs mean or is there still a lot of openness to interpretation?

DR. VAN STONE: The things they’re arguing about now is whether they used one kind of verb or another. It’s pretty much decided. They’re down to sort of grammatical differences, and they’re also down to deciphering the differences between the literatures of different cities. I mean, the Maya were not one people, they were not unified in their philosophy any more than we are. I mean, we have progressives and we have conservatives and some cities must’ve had one school of thought about the 2012 and others different things. But they had different, how shall I say, different rhetorical styles from one place to the next.


DR. VAN STONE: And it’s pretty much readable completely now.

ST JOHN: So within the field of Maya scholars, and do you say Maya scholars or Mayan scholars?

DR. VAN STONE: Maya scholars. The word ‘Mayan’ is used officially only to represent – to refer to languages. The Mayan languages, Maya scholars, Maya culture, Maya this, Maya that.

ST JOHN: Is there still a lot of disagreement within the scholars of the Maya culture as to what the glyphs really mean?

DR. VAN STONE: Not really. There’s really only a couple of dozen people that really read glyphs every day and work with them and they’re pretty much in agreement. And there’s not a lot of – Let’s say that meta-meanings are very important. I think one of the most important things to remember about Maya hieroglyphs is they were everywhere in their environment. All, like billboards and signs in streets and things like that for us, except that as in China, as in Egypt, which also had hieroglyphs everywhere, the people were illiterate. So the hieroglyphs, the glyphs that they adorned their world with were really, to the man on the street, were also mysterious, just as mysterious as they are to any modern tourist.

ST JOHN: And so everybody agrees, do they, that 2012 is a significant date by the Maya calendar. It’s just the disagreement is what does it mean.

DR. VAN STONE: Yes, that’s a very good point. My mentor, Michael Coe, insists that the number 13000 must have been—must have been—an important date but it’s all simply because 13 was an important number.

ST JOHN: So why do you think there’s been so much put on this date by people trying to make sense of it?

DR. VAN STONE: It’s a kind of urban myth. It’s something that is appealing and a little scary and a little mysterious, and people love that.

ST JOHN: Yes. It does seem like about every 15 years we have something that could be the end of the world.

DR. VAN STONE: Absolutely.

ST JOHN: So your argument, your whole book, is really arguing, look, 2012 is not something to be afraid of.

DR. VAN STONE: Yeah, actually I try to get that out of the way pretty quickly.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

DR. VAN STONE: 2012 is nothing to be afraid of. Like I said, the Maya predicted that their world would be going on until at least the year 4772 and that they would be doing everything the same as they always had. But what I really would like to do with my book is to say, okay, well, the Maya didn’t predict the end of the world but they did have some really, really interesting things that we should look at. And I – go ahead.

ST JOHN: So tell us about some of the interesting things that you feel is more interesting. This is perhaps a bit of a distraction, this whole focus…


ST JOHN: …on 2012.

DR. VAN STONE: Well, for instance, one of the things I discovered looking at this stuff was that the world tree is a very important mythological concept. They believed that there was a tree with its roots in the underworld and its branches in heaven and the trunk in our world in the center of the universe and at the four corners, north, south, east and west. And when a king stands in a monument holding what’s called a serpent bar across his chest, this object with two snakeheads, and he holds it tight against his chest and he’s got feathers in his hair, he is becoming a world tree and he is connecting to the gods and he is taking care of his people by interceding with the gods. And what he’s actually becoming is the Milky Way, which is a reflection of the world tree in the sky. And the Milky Way goes north to south, and it’s crossed by the path of the planets and the sun and the moon. And so that serpent bar actually represents the path of the planets called the ecliptic, and he represents the Milky Way.

ST JOHN: So they were much more aware of the sky and the planets perhaps than maybe we are now where we’re much more focused on our own…

DR. VAN STONE: Well, certainly they had a clearer sky to look at.

ST JOHN: That’s true.

DR. VAN STONE: They had no electric lights at night and they had no pollution and the sky in – If you go to the desert, you’ll see how beautiful the sky can be and how powerful the Milky Way is.

ST JOHN: And somehow they seem to position themselves in time in a much – they had a much broader sweep of time…

DR. VAN STONE: Yes, they did.

ST JOHN: …from looking at your book. I mean, they position us as this tiny little spot in a huge length of time…

DR. VAN STONE: That’s right.

ST JOHN: …which is so different from us. We’re very much aware of, you know, here we are right now and…


ST JOHN: …what we can gain in the next few years.

DR. VAN STONE: I think that like most Americans today, they were concerned with the day-to-day stuff. Everybody was. But there were Carl Sagans, you know, billions and billions, you know, try to – fitting yourself into these – into the context of the universe. And there are some monuments that actually give dates connecting us to cycles of time that are nonillions of years long.

ST JOHN: So now you’re going to be giving a talk at the Museum of Man tomorrow at four o’clock.


ST JOHN: “2012, What the Maya Really Prophesied.”


ST JOHN: So anyone who’s interested in this and wants to get a little deeper in it can go to the Museum of Man tomorrow. And then your book is full of all these pictures of hieroglyphs and interpretations and pictures. It’s in 38 chapters. Why did you write 38 different essays about this?

DR. VAN STONE: Because to talk about the Maya to anybody, they quickly lose interest in the details. And you really have to keep the stories short to get to the end. It’s a complex thing to discover, and I tried to focus on one aspect at a time.

ST JOHN: And one of them, I know, was, just for example, was the significance of blood sacrifice and you talk about the film, what’s the name of the film?

DR. VAN STONE: “Apocalypto.”

ST JOHN: “Apocalypto.” And, again, you shed some new light, really, on the way that Maya use blood and that it’s – a king, for example, has better blood than your average common man, which is why they would go out and try and capture a king.

DR. VAN STONE: That’s right, and…

ST JOHN: So, that…

DR. VAN STONE: …why the kings would sacrifice their own blood.

ST JOHN: So there’s a lot of different aspects to the Maya culture that you unfold, and beautiful illustrations in this book, "2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya." And, once again, if you’d like to hear more of Dr. Mark Van Stone, he’s at the Museum of Man tomorrow at four. So, Mark, thanks so much for coming in.

DR. VAN STONE: Thank you very much.

ST JOHN: And thank you for staying tuned to These Days here on KPBS.