Copan and the Mayan Legacy; A World that Will Not End in 2012 (Vámonos Vol. 19)

You are bound to hear a great deal about the Mayans this year. It’s been said that the Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012. That is not true. The world may or may not end in 2012, but the Mayans never predicted it.

For a traveler, a student of history, or just a person living in the Americas there is a lot to be learned from a society that whose height lasted for 600 years, according to William R. Coe’s article in “American Anthropologist.” But let’s start by laying the persistent rumor to bed.

Mayan elders have heard a number of questions on the subject of the coming apocalypse. Apolinario Chile Pixtun is quoted in an AP article saying “they had me fed up with this (2012) stuff.” The same article later quotes David Stuart a specialist in Mayan writing who says flatly, “The Maya never said the world would end.”

This sentiment is echoed by physicist and Discovery News contributor Ian O’Neill. “There’s no evidence to suggest the Mayans believed the end of their long count calendar would spell doomsday,” he said. “There’s no real prophecy that says this is going to be the end of the world, not from the Mayan ruins, anyway,” added archeologist Christopher Powell.

The idea of a Mayan predicted apocalypse was greatly strengthened by the viral promotion for and 2009 release of the film “2012.” The Internet Movie Database says the John Cusack vehicle has grossed more than $750 million worldwide at last count. So, at least somebody is getting something out of this misinformation.

But behind the popular pseudo-science and movie lip service, a vibrant culture occupied the Yucatan Peninsula as far back as 2600 B.C. The dates for the earliest Mayans come from radiocarbon dating done at a prehistoric Maya site in Cuello, Belize, and published in “Nature.” But the Mayans whose classic period happened much later, around 300 – 900 A.D. according to Coe, left behind more physical tangible evidence of the world they lived in.

As a tourist there are many Mayan sites you might visit. The empire, as described in the “Nature” article, stretched across the southern part of Mexico southwest into Honduras. Perhaps the greatest remnants of that past are the Ruins of Copán.

“The amount of inscribed materials at Copán is truly astounding,” said David Stuart, chair of the Art and Art History Department at the University of Texas. These inscribed materials are so important because they provide a written way to look into the distant past. The once great Mayan City, which sits near what, is now the border between Honduras and Guatemala is a treasure trove of these artifacts.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization recognizes Copán as a world heritage site, a distinction that puts the ruins on par with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. UNESCO praised the ruins of the great city as the site of “significant achievements in mathematics, astronomy, and hieroglyphic writing.”

The mathematic achievement obliquely referred to here is probably the Mayan base 20 number system, a system that was described in depth in the J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson article “Mayan Mathematics.” This mathematic system combined with what Ian O’Neill calls “keen and highly accurate astronomy,” contributed to the Mayans to creation of the famous long calendar; a calendar that today is still emblazoned on t-shirts and cemented into Chicago sidewalks. But while that calendar does finish, it doesn’t call for the apocalypse. Ideas about the end times are more likely to come from The Book of Revelations than Mayan texts. Chile Pixtun concluded that these 2012 end-of-the-world theories come from western ideas.

So the Mayans didn’t predict that the world would end this year and neither do I. But if you get a chance to visit Copán this year, I predict you’ll enjoy it.