University of Calgary

End of the world?

November 12, 2009

Is the world really ending in three years?

Tortuguero Monument Six
The text segment describing the descent of the Bolon Yookte from the Tortuguero monument 6. / Drawing by Sven Gronemeyer.

U of C archeology professor debunks Maya doomsday prophecy

Since Y2K, there hasn’t been much for apocalypse believers to focus on, until now.

The November 13 release of a new, big-budget Hollywood film titled 2012 comes amidst a flurry of books, workshops and even vacation tours that attempt to legitimize the Maya prophecy. Those supporters say the prophecy comes from an ancient carved monument recovered from the Maya region, which covers the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Ecuador and has been home to the Maya, an indigenous people, since 900 BC.

The monument, called the Tortuguero Monument Six, does indeed refer to the date December 21, 2012, but according to University of Calgary archeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor, it not an end-of-the-world prophecy. She says the translation of the text essentially says that something will occur December 21, 2012 and that it will be similar to something that occurred on another date in the past.

We don’t know, she explains, what that past occurrence was or what the future occurrence will be. At no point do any of the Maya texts actually prophesize the end of the world. “It was originally thought by people who study Maya languages that the date refers to the time when a deity would descend upon the earth,” says Reese-Taylor. “Re-examinations of the text now show that may not be the case.”

So how did this vague statement come to mean doomsday? Reese-Taylor says it never has meant the end of the world among the Maya people and it is North Americans who have created this interpretation. “The idea of a Maya prophecy emerged in the 1970s when North American journalists and writers began to cherry pick ideas from the Maya, Aztec and Hopi cultures and created what they now call the Maya prophecy.”

At the time, North America entered a trend of moving away from organized Western religions and towards exploring indigenous religions and beliefs. The notion of the Maya prophecy caught on and it has since sparked an industry of books, workshops and tours that posit themselves as factual and which Reese-Taylor says are no more than money-making schemes.

“What is important is that Maya texts still refer to dates beyond December 21, 2012. How the Maya view time is much bigger than the current prophecy suggests.”