Historical Particularism, Achieved Status and the End of Days

The last time I taught Introduction to Anthropology, I decided to use the Mayan Apocalypse phenomenon as a case study for how we recognize and evaluate pseudoscience. We discussed what the students had heard about Maya eschatology, figured out what data we actually needed to determine the facts behind the story, and reached our own conclusions. Did the Maya, in fact, believe there was an apocalypse coming in 2012 CE? Any archaeologist worth their salt will tell you ‘No’, but I wanted my students to understand the evidence for themselves, and learn how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

The Mayan Calendar System

The ancient Maya had a complex calendar system – several in fact. There was the 260 day ritual calendar (Tzolk’in), along with the 365 day solar calendar (Haab’). Together these make up the 52 year calendar round. There was also the Long Count Calendar. It is this latter calendar that has been of such interest regarding the upcoming Apocalypse.

The Long Count is made up of years which are 360 days long (tuns). 400 tuns make up a b’ak’tun, which is just over 394 solar years. The Mayans used a base 20 counting system, which is why you have a year that is 18×20 (as close to a full solar year as possible) ritual year and 1 b’ak’tun = 20×20 tuns.  The Mayan long count has a chosen start date (like we have the the reckoned year of Jesus Christ’s conception as the start of our Gregorian Calendar, 1 A.D.)  We have data for the Long Count Calendar from several sources – it appears on archaeological sites before the start of the Common Era, and also gets discussed in a few Maya Manuscripts including copies of the Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex. The Popol Vuh says that the Gods created three worlds before they made the one that the Maya were created in. The third world lasted for thirteen b’ak’tuns. Nowhere does anything say that each world, or even the fourth world, must last only 13 b’ak’tuns. You can think of the long count in the same way that we think of our centuries, or millenia.  We’d write the end of the 13th b’ak’tun as – the next day is

Archaeologists have determined that the creation date of the fourth world, the world of the Maya people, would have been August 11, 3114 BCE according to the Maya long count calendar. We are coming to the end of the 13th b’ak’tun of this era on December 21, 2012 (or thereabouts). There is one damaged archaeological monument, Monument 6 at the site of El Tortuguero, which makes reference to the end of this b’ak’tun, but even this series of glyphs has been interpreted variously by different archaeologists. None state that it indicates the end of the world, however. Surely if the Maya thought this an important date, it would have appeared more frequently in their glyphs at the huge number of Maya sites thus far studied by archaeologists. Further – why would other monuments include dates well into the future, if the world was believed to end this year? Indeed, the bulk of new age mythology that has developed around December 21st 2012 is based on nothing but assumptions that each Maya world must be the same length of time and a culturally un-Mayan expectation of the end of days. It ignores the vast amount of data that does not support the claim that the Maya believed the world will end this year.

I told my students this was a straightforward example of pseudoscience, and that they have the skills to seek out information and evaluate the evidence themselves to refute such claims. It was a nice way to wrap up the semester.

And then Dick Clark died.

And I began to rethink my suppositions. Rather than looking to other cultures and misinterpreting their calendars, we should look to the particulars of our own culture, to understand what is happening at the end of this year. And that it may, in fact, be the end of the world.

The American Calendrical System

For Americans, Dick Clark is the facilitator of our own calendar cycle. Every year he leads us through the ritual to leave one calendar cycle and enter into the next.

The American ritual of calendrical transition is the New Years Eve Ball Drop.  As with other traditions, the Ball Drop was somewhat variable during its early years, but was quickly standardized. From 1928-1977 Guy Lombardo would host the ball drop, first on CBS radio and by the 1950s on CBS Television. He held achieved status as the host of the New Year’s eve ball drop – he earned the respect of Americans and they chose to follow him as he led us through our ritual transition between calendar years.

During the 1970s, Dick Clark, feeling that the leader was no longer performing the ritual well, began his own New Years eve ritual on ABC: Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.  For several years both men performed their rituals of calendrical transition. Dick Clark earned his status as Americans chose to watch his show in lieu of Guy Lombardo’s.  When Lombardo died in 1977, a clear leader was waiting for us, one who many had already accepted as the ritual leader for the transition. Dick Clark had achieved his status, and thus the Calendrical Round continued successfully. Until now.

After Dick Clark had a stroke several years ago, Ryan Seacrest was ascribed as the next ritual leader, but we all know that it takes more than a title to make a successful ritual leader.

The ritual calendrical leader is a position of achieved status, and Ryan Seacrest does not have the authority of the people behind him, leading us to certain failure in performing the ritual properly. Ryan Seacrest was handed down to the people from the other leaders (including Dick Clark).  We did not choose to follow him, and though he was given the opportunity, he has not earned a status position in the way that Guy Lombardo and Dick Clark did. Without legitimate status as ritual leader, it is doubtful the ritual will succeed.

Perhaps we ARE misinterpreting the Maya data. Perhaps we are not reading the glyphs as we ought. Perhaps our own ritual calendar also shows signs of structural collapse. Dick Clark’s death is, to me, the most convincing data yet that the Maya calendar does end after 13 b’ak’tuns and the Apocalypse is coming.

Prepare yourselves.


** Update: 3:40pm : For a physicist’s perspective on the Apocalypse and the actual end of the world, check out Matthew Francis‘ post over at DoubleXScience

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