Various Mayan scholars have attempted to debunk this reading, including Sven
Gronemeyer of Australia’s La Trobe University, who has studied the Tortugero
tablet in great detail. On Wednesday he presented his decoding of the
inscription, suggesting that Bolon Yokte’s prophesied appearance on December 21,
2012, represents the start of a new era and not the end of days. Proponents of
the apocalyptic interpretation have misunderstood the poorly preserved
hieroglyphs, he said.
A panel depicting ceremonies of the Mayan kings. (Credit: LeClair/Reuters/Corbis)
Centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, the powerful
Maya empire reached the peak of its influence around the sixth century A.D.
and collapsed several hundred years later. Along with impressive stone
monuments and elaborate cities, the lost Mesoamerican civilization left
behind traces of its sophisticated calendar, which scholars have spent
decades struggling to decipher. In recent years, popular culture has latched
on to theories that the close of the calendar’s current cycle—set to occur
around December 21, 2012—corresponds to the end of the world in the Mayan
The first Mayan calendar, known as the Calendar Round, appears to have been
based on two overlapping annual cycles: a 260-day sacred year and a 365-day
secular year that named 18 months with 20 days each. Under this system, each
day was assigned four pieces of identifying information: a day number and
day name in the sacred calendar and a day number and month name in the
secular calendar. Every 52 years counted as a single interval, or Calendar
Round, and after each interval the calendar would reset itself like a clock.
But because the Calendar Round measured time in an endless loop, ancient
Mayans couldn’t use it to establish chronologies or relate events with wide
spans of time between them. Around 300 B.C., priests apparently solved this
problem by devising a new method known as the Long Count, which identified
each day by counting forward from a base point calculated to fall on August
11, 3114 B.C. It grouped days into several sets: baktun (144,000 days),
k’atun (7,200 days), tun (360 days), uinal or winal (20 days) and kin (one
day). A single cycle of the Long Count calendar lasts 13 baktuns, or roughly
5,126 solar years, meaning that it is slated to end on a date correlating to
December 21, 2012.
What exactly happens when the Long Count winds down? For some theorists,
hieroglyphs on a 1,300-year-old stone tablet from the Tortuguero
archaeological site in Mexico might hold the answer. Worn with age and
riddled with cracks, it includes a hazy prediction of an event involving
Bolon Yokte, the Mayan god of creation and war, at the end of the 13th
baktun. One hotly disputed hypothesis holds that the passage describes a
cataclysmic end to the world as we know it.
Gronemeyer outlined his findings a week after Mexico’s National Institute of
Anthropology and History announced that another inscription with a possible
mention of December 2012 was found at the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, located not
far from Tortuguero. The institute has long maintained that the Mayan calendar
does not foretell the world’s destruction a year from now.