End of the Maya Calendar: Can a past culture provide clues to our climate-related future?

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Image of a stone with inscriptions. Image Credit: Chris Evans
Image of a stone with inscriptions. Image Credit: Chris Evans

Image Credit: Chris Evans

The end of the world has been predicted by many to take place on Dec. 21, 2012, due to the ending of the Maya calendar on that date. Do we need to worry? What can the ancient Maya culture tell us about what will happen to us as a result of global warming and changes in local weather patterns?

The calendar that is referred to is the ‰ÛÏMesoamerican Long Count calendar,‰Û which was used in Central America prior to the arrival of Europeans. It was most likely invented by the Olmec but has become closely associated with the Maya civilization. The Long Count measured time in units of 20:

‰Û¢ A uinal = 20 days

‰Û¢ 18 uinals = 360 days = a tun

‰Û¢ 20 tuns = 7,200 days = a k’atun

‰Û¢ 20 k’atuns = 144,000 days = a b’ak’tun.

Maya literature, according to certain interpretations, suggests that we are living in the fourth world ‰ÛÒ the fourth being successful and having humanity placed in it, and the first three being divine failures.

According to popular belief, in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, the third world ended after 13 b’ak’tuns (about 5,125 years ago). Dec. 21, 2012, marks the end of the fourth world, after a further 13 b’ak’tuns.

However, William Saturno, assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University, says ‰ÛÏThere is no connection between the long count calendar and the multiple creations portrayed in the Popol Vuh of which humans are created in the fourth of a series of creations.‰Û

He continues, ‰ÛÏThere is no indication in the Popol Vuh or any source as to the duration of a creation. There is also no indication/prediction of an end to the human creation.‰Û

The Popol Vuh is a book that was written in the middle of the 16th century about ancient Maya mythology, culture and chronology.

In other words, Saturno argues that there is no connection between Dec. 21, 2012, and the end of the world.

Popular belief is that the end of the 13th b’ak’tun would have been of great significance to the Maya, whose classic period lasted from 250 to 900 AD. Saturno and others such as Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, argue that it would have been of great positive significance, something to celebrate.

As Saturno explains, ‰ÛÏThe Maya celebrated period endings large and small ‰Û_ Would the end of a b’ak’tun cycle (1,872,000 days) be celebrated? Certainly. Would it be accompanied by a Western notion of apocalypse? Almost certainly not.‰Û

(Read articles from Earthzine’s Climate Consensus Theme)

An article recently published in the journal Science describes how researchers reconstructed rainfall records from stalagmite samples collected from Yok Balum Cave, nearly three miles from the ancient city of Uxbenka, in the tropical Maya Lowlands in southern Belize.

The records show periods with high rainfall and also periods with droughts. By comparing the data to the number of stone monuments with carvings in Maya cities showing political histories such as rulers’ birthdays, accession to power, deaths, and burials, the wet periods were related to increases in food production and the proliferation of cities. The dry periods were related to population decline and Maya kings losing their power and influence.

In today’s world, the effects on local weather patterns make global warming real to many people. Past cultures have faced threats to their existence or at least their status quo from climatic change.

However, as Saturno explains, Maya political systems developing and falling apart again in response to climate change is an over-simplification, ‰ÛÏthe environment neither gave rise to nor swallowed up Maya Civilization.‰Û

‰ÛÏPut simply, Maya political systems in the southern lowland centered around the glorification of hereditary dynasties of kings, ceased to meet the needs of the population. Cities elsewhere in the Maya area started and thrived after the ‰Û÷collapse’ of classic cities.

‰ÛÏDid environment play a part? Certainly. Did environmental shortcomings cause collapse? No. Could political responses to environmental problems have led to further difficulties? Maybe ‰Û_ we shouldn’t need to make societies fail like we are, just to feel like there is a warning there.‰Û

So did Maya civilization change drastically at the end of the classic period? Saturno explains, ‰ÛÏThe ‰Û÷collapse’ refers to the drastic change in the importance of dynastic kingship or at least the means by which it was defined and recorded. Did civilization vanish? No.‰Û Saturno goes on to explain that some cities still existed at the time the Spanish arrived. Tayasal, for example, fell to the Spanish in 1697.

Culture is largely shaped by local climate. People live and survive in challenging conditions all around the world ‰ÛÒ subzero temperatures, excess heat, monsoon rains, typhoons, jungles and deserts.

These cultures have learned how to adapt to their environment, live in harmony with it, grow suitable crop varieties, or eat the natural food that is available by hunting, fishing or foraging. Traditional ways of life are still practiced by some cultures, including modern-day Inuit in Canada and Sami in Scandinavia, and some cultures around the world are being threatened by environmental change.

Only by monitoring our climate can we begin to understand it, how it is now, how it was in the past and how it may change in the future. There exists a clear need to understand what is happening to the climate as well as the influence of climate on cultural development so that human civilization can adapt at all scales ‰ÛÒ individual farmers, small villages, towns and large cities.