Will the "2012 Problem" be a cataclysm or a Mayan Y2K? A event or a nonevent? The number comes from the Julian calendar year, 2012 A.D., and results from a confluence within Mayan timekeeping. The question may therefore hinge on the accuracy of the calendar itself.

     The Maya Calendar is properly called the Mesoamerican calendar system, since it does not originate solely with the Maya, nor is it a single calendar. The Maya are most frequently associated with it perhaps because of their gift for astrometric precision, and the closeness of their mythological traditions to the practice of timekeeping.

     The two most important Mayan calendars, and the only ones common to all mesoamerican societies, were both vigesimal (based on units of 20). The shorter, ceremonial Tzolk'in "year" consists of 13 twenty-day "months", and the longer Haab' counts 18, plus a "bad luck" five-day period at the end called the Wayeb'. The months have such eclectic names as "white storm", "bat", "red conjunction", "planting time", "water", etc. The numerology of the Tzolk'in, is not arbitrary. It probably originated with an astronomical periodicity or with the term of human gestation, such that midwives may have contributed to its definition.

     The ceremonial and solar years number 260 and 365 days, respectively. The lowest common multiple of these numbers, 18980, is equivalent to 52 Haab (solar) years; these 52-year cycles are called "calendar rounds". Therefore, "New Years' Day" for both calendars coincides every 52 years. The next time this will happen is December 21, 2012.

     A study of any calendar should include an examination of its accuracy, which can be gauged on different levels: as a temporal demarcator, as a chronology, and as a predictive device. Accuracy in the latter holds the implications for the 2012 problem.

     On the temporal level, the Mesoamerican system has been dead accurate for millenia. The Mayas' adjustments were not limited to adding the five extra days; they also compensated for the six or so extra hours in each solar year. Their Roman contemporaries solved this by instituting leap years. The Maya solution is unknown, but it existed; the Spaniards discovered the Mesoamericans using a calendar as least as accurate as their own.

     On the chronology level, a calendar can be seen as accurate if historical or geological events can be precisely dated within it, or if there is collateral support in mythic traditions, whether those of the society that originated it, or, better still, in the mythology or chronology or other societies. The Popol Vuh, the Maya creation myth, is progressively murky the further back we look. Nevertheless, the Popul Vuh records a flood that was seen by the Mayas as universal; not surprisingly, it was at the beginning of a calendar round about halfway through the third millennium, B.C.E. Other (non-Maya) traditions back up the Popul Vuh, and therefore its chronology, by recording a flood at about the same time (note: the Popul Vuh is not among the accounts that mention anything like an ark).

     So, as a marker of seasons and as a aid to chronology, the Mesoamerican calendar system wins points for accuracy. What about as a predictive device? No cataclysm occurred in 1960 (the completion of the previous calendar round). A comet apparently stuck Siberia back in 1908, but even if Mayanists were predicting anything like this, there is no record of it.

     In fact, Mayanists are not the ones forecasting cataclysm for 2012. The anticipation is found instead within pagan and esoteric circles, and was first advanced by New Ager Jose Arguelles. Armageddon may indeed come in 2012, but not because of the completion of a mesoamerican calendar round. The Mesoamerican system, for all its elegance and virtue, has no probus as a forecasting mechanism.

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