Can you read this? Good, we’re still alive!

An Israeli expert explains the Mayans haven't predicted the world's end.

December 21, 2012 00:52
3 minute read.
Itzamana, the creator of the Mayan calendar.

Itzamana, the creator of the Mayan calendar 370. (photo credit: Edgard Garrido / Reuters)


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If you’re reading these words, great news: The world has not ended. The 5,200-year-long Mayan calendar, which ends on Friday, has prompted a global frenzy about the end of the world. Uh oh, millions of people have worried, what did the ancient Mayans know that today’s scientists don’t? But an Israeli expert in pre- Hispanic communities in Latin America wants you to know that the Mayans never predicted the world would end today.

“People like to be scared,” explained Dr. Barak Afik, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specializes in the ancient history of Latin America, on Thursday. “We’re humans. We need to feel some kind of belief. This ending is an example of that belief. For many people, it’s easier to say that it’s the end rather than that it’s the beginning.”

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He pointed out that this same hysteria could be found on major dates in the Gregorian calendar, most notably in 2000 with the Y2K bug.

Western culture gives us a linear notion of time – a beginning, a middle and then some kind of ultimate catastrophe that leads to the end, he explained.

“We’re always looking for the end,” he said. “When will everything end? When will we die?” Afik hypothesized that this obsession with the end of days – and the perpetual state of fear accompanying it – was a natural human reaction to the uncertainty of death.

“One day, it will happen, you will die, but it will come as a surprise,” he said. “But we don’t like that surprise.”

As a way to combat this sense of uncertainty, he continued, humans cling to things that could spell the end of the world – for example, the end of an ancient Latin American calendar.


The Mayan equivalent of a millennium is a “great cycle,” which lasts 5,200 years. The current great cycle, which they believed was the fifth such cycle since the beginning of the world, ends on December 21, 2012.

In contrast to the Western concept of time, Mayans believed that time was cyclical. Afik described the Mayans’ view of time as a spiral: We have now finished one circle and are climbing upward to the next. For them, the end of the calendar was a time of deep introspection.

The HU professor explained that if Mayans were alive today, they would ask themselves – as a community – what did we learn during the last cycle? What wars did we fight and how can we learn to make peace with our neighbors? What technology did we invent and how can we use it to improve our individual and communal lives? What is the state of our environment? How are we impacting the natural world? What did we do well, and what did we do poorly? Mayans also firmly believed that an unbalanced natural world, suffering from uncharacteristically strong storms, or what today’s world would call pollution, could only be balanced once internal problems within the community were solved, he said.

The Mayans called themselves “the lords of the time” because they understood that measuring time allowed them to improve their agriculture, by predicting and understanding the seasons with greater accuracy, Afik explained. The society of astronomers and mathematicians understood the concept of zero 1,000 years before the Europeans, and could predict major weather patterns with some accuracy.

He noted that the Mayans had also predicted their extinction with the arrival of “men wearing beards”; they were exterminated by the Spanish 500 years ago.

Mayan spiritual texts talk about a period of many “20-year cycles” (the Mayan equivalent of a decade) for which their people will be gone from the earth before they begin to come back.

Afik gave dozens of interviews with the media around the world about Mayan history and beliefs, amid the speculation surrounding the end of the calendar.

“Because of this calendar, people are becoming really interested in the Maya,” he said, hinting that this could be the comeback the Mayans had predicted hundreds of years ago.

He compared the new movement of studying Mayan spiritualism to people who studied Zen Buddhism or Kabbala.

“There is something really important with all their knowledge, which was so advanced even though they had no access to maps or other technology,” he said. “People think, maybe there’s something we can learn from them.”

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