Based on a misunderstanding about the Mayan calendar–which many people are convinced ends on December 21, 2012–broader humanity has been subjected to predictions of apocalypse, a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, and stupid jokes. Thirteen days ago, I saw someone Tweet, “If Mayans were good at predicting the future, there’d be Mayans.”
For Bryan Weaver, DC activist, former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, and former DC Council candidate, jokes like that aren’t just ignorant; they’re making fun of his friends.
Since 1999, Weaver–as Founder and Executive Director of the organization Hoops Sagrado (Sacred Hoops)–has taken at-risk youth from Washington, DC to Guatemala, to interact with very-much-alive Mayan people. The DC teens live with host families, take Spanish-language immersion classes, learn about Mayan culture, and aid the Mayan community in several ways, in part by running a basketball clinic. Weaver and his partners in Hoops Sagrado work to enrich the lives of youth from communities that are separated by geography, but linked by sociological circumstance.
As notes the Hoops Sagrado website, the DC teens and Mayan youth are linked by “racism, poverty, broken homes, lack of opportunities and social marginalization”–and, more positively, basketball. ”Basketball courts,” again explains the website, “are the center of life in rural villages, serving as the venue for markets, festivals, political rallies, religious ceremonies, and of course basketball games.”
So for Weaver, other peoples’ ignorance about the actual meaning of the Mayan calendar, and snarky jokes about Mayan people, are more than mere annoyances. They get in the way of fostering cross-cultural understanding.
“American-ism is something we battle through the entire trip,” Weaver explained to me recently. “I raise the issue often about the Mayans being the first major civilization in the Americas and most Americans have no idea about them…then we turn out perversions of their culture through our own. Movies like 2012 or Apocalypto give Americans a really warped perspective of the Mayans.”
As to the actual functioning of the Mayan calendar, I got a lesson from a Mayan scholar: Jaime Garcia, Spiritual Guide for Hoops Sagrado. Garcia explained:
[T]he Maya Long count records very long perids of time. Within this count there are several subsets:
q’ij – 1 day
winal or winaq – 20 days
tun or hab’ – 18 winals or 360 days (this is the closest level to our solar year)
katun – 20 tuns or 6,200 days
baktun – 20 katuns or 144,000 days or 600 tuns
Example, we are currently in the 13th baktun. A day might look like this 188.8.131.52.1 with 12 marking baktuns.
This year, on Dec 21, 2012, we are going to complete 13 baktuns and move into the 14th. So on Dec 21, the long count will look like this 184.108.40.206.0 This doesn’t mark the end of the calendar, rather the end of the 13th baktun – which is a very long period of time. In Classic and Post-Classic Mayan culture, celebrations existed for these type of period endings. Because of the destruction of Mayan calendars and other written materials, many Mayans themselves don’t know about this period ending. The little that remains of the long count calendar is found in carved stelas in archaeological sites.
In studies of Maya epigraphy (hieroglyphs), we have found examples of much larger subsets of time. For example, we have encountered a piktun, this piktun is equivelant to 20 baktuns, which 2,880,000. This date occurs in the year 4772 AD. Another example, is the kalabtun, which is equivelent to 20 piktuns. There is also mention of a kinchiltun, which is 20 kalabtuns! These are extremely large counts far into the future, which show us that the 13 baktun that is coming up is not the end of the calendar. Rather, it’s the end of a subset of time.
The thing about the U.S.-pop culture misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar is that it essentially imposes a U.S.-pop culture-based idea of the apocalypse upon an entirely different cultural understanding of time, history, beginnings and endings. Accordingly, I asked Garcia if Mayan culture has an understanding of the end of the world akin to that generally brought up in U.S. pop culture: disaster, mass death, Second Coming, and the like. Garcia once again enlightened me:
In Mayan culture, there are no Apocalyptic predictions or anything concerning the end of world…. However, in Mayan culture, Mayans mark periods of change. Changes within one’s life or within nature, and political, social, cultural, religious changes, which are observed in Mayan culture. At the beginning of one baktun, or perhaps a longer period, and the end of another it is important to look at these changes. By observing one’s behavior and political, social, cultural, etc changes during this time period you are reminded of the value of life.
Bryan Weaver, mixing knowledge of Mayan culture with U.S.-American bluntness, seconded this. “There is no evidence anywhere in the archaeological record of Mayans who associated the restarting of the Great Cycle with cataclysm. Period.”