Why was December 21, 2012 so important to the ancient Maya? Should we be concerned about this date? Will it bring the end of the world? Will it usher in a new age for humanity? Or will it pass with little consequence, much like the Y2K frenzy of a few years ago? There are no simple answers to these questions. Rather, we encourage a careful exploration of all sides of the issue. Please use this site as your gateway to learning about the Maya 2012 date. Here you will find a very basic exploration of the Maya calendar system and links to a variety of sources relevant for understanding this auspicious date.
Humanity has developed numerous calendar systems. These calendar systems are united in that they keep track of the passage of time and are usually linked to the change of seasons, cycles of the moon, and cycles of the earth’s rotation around the sun, or some combination of all of these. Yet calendar systems differ in a variety of ways as well, particularly in regards to how much time is tracked within the cycles of each calendar. For instance, in the Gregorian calendar (the system used by most of the western world) weeks represent a cycles of seven days, months represent cycles of approximately 30 days vaguely linked to the motion of the moon, and years represent cycles of 365 days, which is the amount of time it takes the Earth to travel around the sun. Another way in which calendars differ is the designation of days upon which the various cycles reset. So although January 1st marks the new year in the Gregorian calendar, other calendars which follow different cycles will mark the new year differently. For instance, in the Jewish calendar, the new year (Rosh Hashanah) will occur on a date that usually corresponds to sometime in September in the Gregorian calendar.
To understand why December 21, 2012 was so important to the ancient Maya we must know something about their calendar, which is quite complex and different from the Gregorian calendar. The basic Maya calendar is actually two calendar systems in one. One of these, the Tzolkin, is a calendar based on a cycle of 260 days. Within the Tzolkin twenty different day names (Imix, Ik, etc.) cycle with the numbers one to thirteen. This concept is similar to the Gregorian calendar where seven day names (Monday, Tuesday, etc.) cycle with roughly thirty numbers each month (Monday the 1st, Tuesday the 2nd, etc.) . In the Tzolkin a particular combination of numbers and days (e.g., 1 Imix) will repeat itself once every 260 days. The Tzolkin cycles with a second 365-day calendar known as the Haab. The Haab is based on the solar cycle. The Haab contained 18 months of 20 days each, with five “unlucky” days added at the end of the cycle for a total 365 days. When the two calendars are meshed together a particular day only repeats itself once every 18,980 days, or 52 years, a period of time that researchers refer to as the “short count.” Although the short count can be used to very precisely track the passage of time within a 52 year cycle, it is not linked to a fixed point of time in the past so is not terribly useful for tracking long periods of time (imagine a date like Wednesday July 30th, with no reference to a particular year). That is why the Gregorian calendar is fixed at AD 1 and counts years forward. It gives each date a specific point in linear time and allows us to count time forward into infinity.
To deal with this issue, the Maya and other ancient Mesoamericans employed the Long Count. In this system, days are counted forward starting at a date that corresponds to the Gregorian date of August 15, 3114 BC. Maya counting works on a base-20 system, unlike our counting system, which is base-10 (1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.). In the long count, each Maya day is known as a kin, 20 kins equals one winal, 18 winal equals one tun (it is 18 winal, not 20 winal, to give a cycle of 360 days which is roughly one solar year), 20 tuns equals one katun (roughly 20 years), and 20 katuns equals one baktun (roughly 395 years). Each of these cycles had increasing importance for the Maya. Think of it this way, a new tun cycle was like our New Year, the katun is like our new decade, and the new baktun is something between our new century and millennia.
As important as the baktun was, a cycle of 13 baktuns was of fundamental importance in Maya mythology. Known as the “great cycle” among scholars, 13 baktuns was the amount of time between one creation to the next. Since the current creation began on August 15, 3114 BC, it will end on December 21, 2012. Of course for the Maya, time was not linear but repeated itself in cycles. Indeed this is not the first creation and it likely will not be the last.
So what will December 21, 2012 mean for you? You will either have to wait and see or perhaps do a little research on your own. Good luck!