The most frequently asked question thirty years ago was about Erich von Däniken's crazy belief that the Mayan king of Palenque (Mexico) was aboard a space ship (a scene carved on the lid of his sarcophagus). Erich von Däniken also claimed the Nazca lines in Peru were landing strips for aliens.

These claims were so silly but millions of people preferred to read von Daeniken about Maya archaeology than the tomes and dissertations of serious scholars.

Today the most frequently asked question is about the Mayan 2012 calendrical prediction of cataclysmic end of the world. So the same is happening again: several clever authors are raking in millions of dollars by fabricating exaggerated tales of entire civilizations ending because of calendrical cycles.


But…what if the Mayan calendar really did predict disasters! This would be a bit embarrassing to some scholars who have criticized the ridiculous books.

As it turns out: pestilence, war, drought, and celestial phenomenon are very much indeed predicted by the Mayan calendars. And yes, the Baktun portion of the cycles of Mayan calenderical are indeed coming to an end in 2012. So although obviously other portions of popular books on 2012 predictions for the end of the world vary from nonsense to exaggeration, there are enough tidbits of real pieces of archaeology to create a structure from which the embellishments arise. Other portions are simply misunderstanding of Mayan archaeology, hieroglyphis, and cosmology (innocently or purposefully).

But still, there are portions of the Mayan calendar and prophecies that are true (for those who lived a thousand years ago). So our purpose, as an archaeological research institute with over 30 years experience with Maya archaeology, is to work at separating fact from fiction:

-What aspects of the Mayan calendar are predictive?

-And does the calendar really “end” in 2012?

(“we” being a team of Mayan scholars; I was educated at Harvard, had three positions at Yale University, doctorate in Mayan iconography at a European university, resulting in a PhD dissertation on Mayan cosmology that is still widely cited today).

Obviously we do not intend to present all the data on a single web page. Instead FLAAR will tackle the question step by step, beginning with a series of bibliographies so that both sides of the story (fact and fiction) can be discussed.

Mayan calendar is inherited from Olmecs and other earlier civilizations

The US capitol building in Washington DC is a pseudo-Roman temple which is a copy of a Greek temple which was probably a copy of an Etruscan temple.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed one of his houses as a copy of a 10 th to 11 th century A.D. Puuc-style Chichen Itza or Uxmal temple palace from Mexico. So most civilizations copy aspects of their culture from earlier cultures..

So it should hardly be a surprise that the Maya borrowed some aspects of their “Mayan” calendar from the Olmec and Izapan peoples. A good example of borrowing a key aspect of ritual would be the word cacao (the seed from which chocolate is made today). Cacao was a sacred drink in ceremonies; cacao was in some instances brewed in an alcoholic form.

The Mayas borrowed this word kakaw(a) from earlier languages. Some linguists think from Mixe-Zoque; other scholars argue for other origins, but the fact remains that the Maya borrowed several features of their culture from earlier peoples. So the word cacao today is one of the few words in our modern language which comes from “Mayan” but via several other languages, since the Spaniard's major interactions tended to be with Nahuatl speakers.

FLAAR has three biologists in-house on staff including two ethnobotanists who specialize in plants, flowers, and fruits used in ceremonies of the Mayan people. Plus we have our own ethnobotanical garden, even cacao, and pataxte, growing inside our headquarters building. So we have a bit of experience with the tropical plants that were used thousands of years ago in Maya rituals.

The word tomato, chocolate and a few other words are considered to come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

The Lima bean comes from Lima, Peru (so obviously neither Aztec nor Maya, but the gist is that many words in our language today come from earlier civilizations). And so on.

Aspects of the calendar of any one Mesoamerican culture were borrowed from other prehispanic civilizations. So if you really wish to learn about the Mayan calendar cycles you also need to study the Olmec, the Izapan civilization, and learn the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Preclassic. It also helps to know the other ancient cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as well. Mesoamerica generally means the area of the world where the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec influenced, so Mexico down through Costa Rica. The headland of Mesoamerica is Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.

Variety among of Mayan cultures: Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Belize

Sorting out fact from fiction is a challenge because there is no one single Mayan culture: there are the Maya belief systems of the Preclassic, slightly different in the Early Classic, Late Classic, Terminal Classic and Post Classic. Post Classic is generally everything after the Collapse of the major Maya cities circa A.D. 900.

Preclassic Maya were based to large degree on the beliefs of the earlier Olmec and the Preclassic culture of Izapa.

Early Classic Maya were adding some features of Teotihuacan religion and iconography.

During the late Classic and early Post Classic many aspects of Toltec-related beliefs were added from central Mexico.

So if you intend to speak about “the” Maya calendar, you need to specify whether you mean Preclassic, Early Classic, Post Classic, etc. In our discussions on this page there is not space to digress into such detail, so we mean the generic concepts of the calendrical cycles that are common to most Mayan calendars.

Pyramid temples, palaces all evolved in style. There were different architectural styles in various parts of the Maya area. Their ruins are still in all the countries inhabited by the Classic Maya: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Maya influence was spread along trade routes all the way south to Costa Rica.

Then you have the calenders of the Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec, as well as whatever calender was used by the Teotihuacan peoples who were the predecessors of the Toltecs who were the predecessors of the Aztecs.

Diversity of Mayan culture over time: the Maya of today

The Mayas of today naturally tend to have beliefs and cultural preferences a bit different than the ancient Mayas of Tikal, Palenque, Copan, Chichen Itza, Tulum or Uxmal of the 4 th to 9 th centuries A.D. Another major cultural division is between the Highland Maya and the Lowland Maya. Most of the calendrical information is from the Maya Lowlands.

An example of cultural differences is that in the Popol Vuh of the Highland Quiche, the sacred tree is a gourd tree; several centuries earlier in the Peten area, scenes on vases suggest a tree that may be a cacao.

The Principal Bird Deity is specifically listed as perched on a nance fruit tree in the Highland Quiche Maya myth of the Popol Vuh. But in the art of Izapa and Preclassic Maya, the tree in which the bird deity Seven Macaw perches is not is a nance tree (it looks more like a gourd or cacao tree). So each cultural area of the Maya had slightly different varions of the basic “bible” which we call the Popol Vuh.

Divination for prediction and prophesy

Divination is still practiced today, especially in the Highland areas of Guatemala and adjacent Chiapas, Mexico. There are still plenty of authentic Maya shamans in the Highlands (and also in the Lowlands of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo). So ethnographers could, if they were interested, produce some information about prophesies among the living Maya of today. Indeed in the FLAAR garden for ethnobotany in Guatemala we grow the tree from which the sacred red divination beans are harvested: palo de pito, Tzite (some list it as Erythrina berteroana, most list it as Erythrina corallodendron L). At FLAAR we grow it in our garden so we can study the flowers and beans (the seed) that come from the flowers as they mature.

But, most of the calendrical documentation is from the Classic period before the arrival of the Spaniards. And most of the other information is from the Post Classic period just before and immediately after the Spanish arrived. So I prefer to harvest documentation from Classic and Post Classic sources and not from modern beliefs (and especially not from modern beliefs).

Going to the source for learning about the Mayan year 2012 and end of cycle predictions

Having studied archaeology of the Maya at Harvard, having done archaeological field work for the University of Pennsylvania at Tikal (Guatemala), and having had three research appointments at Yale University, it would seem I have a bit of experience in Maya culture. However I do not know everything and I am still doing research, and still asking questions. I have lived in Guatemala most of my life, as well as have worked for decades studying temple-pyramid, palace, and ballcourt architecture especially of the Puuc, Chenes, and Rio Bec culture areas of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.

I have discovered the jade treasure of a 9 th century king of Tikal (at age 19 while a student at Harvard), have been captured by Communist terrorists out in the jungles (while leading a group from Yale University and National Geographic), and have lived through an earthquake that killed 28,000 people around me.

To get dinner one day I swam out in a crocodile infested lake with a machete between my teeth to slit the throat of a deer that my dog had chased into the lake. So if the year 2012 brings cataclysm, I have lived life to the fullest. However I look forward to doing research on the Mayas at least two more decades, especially on tropical ethnobotany and ethnozoology (especially bats, crocodiles, turtles and jaguars), iconography, and epigraphy (especially the Primary Standard Sequence of Maya hieroglyphs on Tepeu 1 and Tepeu 2 Maya vases, bowls, and plates.

I also work on testing advanced digital technology for recording Mayan cultural heritage.

So if there is any museum, book publisher, movie agent, interested in an open-minded archaeologist with an understanding both of scholarly professional archaeology as well as with legitimate questions asked by the general public, I am available as a consultant and (public) speaker at conferences and events.

Symbolism and iconography

A recent movie tagged a professor as a symbiologist (the study of symbols). No such academic classification really exists: a real professor who studies symbols of ancient religion or cults would either be a straight-forward art historian or an iconographer. I am both, plus a field archaeologist (“field” meaning that I have experience in excavations of pyramids, burial crypts, etc). I am familiar with symbolism since this is what I have worked on for several decades: interpretation of ancient symbols on stone sculptures (stelae, altars, lintels, statues, etc) on painted and incised ceramics, and on murals.

Mayan beliefs and symbolism associated with the calendrical cycles

Each calendrical segment: day, month, year-cycle, katun (20 year cycle) and baktun (400 year cycle) had complex beliefs associated with them. Mayan beliefs are the result of several thousand years of cultural development. The calendar is also the result of centuries of historical development, plus the mixture of calendrical beliefs of all the other civilizations of Central Mexico (Teotihuacan, Toltec, Aztec) and related civilizations (Xochicalco is one excellent example), Veracruz, Oaxaca (Zapotec and then Mixtec), and coastal Chiapas (first Olmec and then Izapan), plus probably a tad of influence from lower central America.

Mayan cosmology

To understand the Mayan calendar you also need to understand Mayan cosmology in general. Mayan cosmology includes astronomy and astrology. My PhD dissertation was on the portions of the cosmology that are underwater (underworld) and thus not in the sky (although much of the Underworld may be a mirror of what is in the sky). Caves, springs, rivers, lakes, and oceans were all crucial to Mayan cosmology. You can see this in the published version of my PhD thesis, Monsters und Menschen in der Maya Kunst (don't worry about it being auf Deutsch; the captions to the hundreds of illustrations are all in English). Plus you can get the English original of the actual PhD dissertation from InterLibrary loan system.

Celestial gods of the Mayas

The Surface of the Underwaterworld was only the first part of the Maya belief system. To continue your understanding of the Mayan cosmology and Mayan calendar, learn the sky band (planetary band). Here is a good representation of the planetary band (throne front) at Copan, Honduras (photograph by Nicholas Hellmuth, FLAAR Photo Archive, permission to photograph courtesy of IHAH).

FLAAR will be issuing a bibliography on Mayan astro-archaeology later this year.

Summary on Mayan calendar predictions

It definitely helps to raise interest in Mayan culture when some popular craze spreads. Eric von Daeniken introduced more people to the Maya of Palenque than a dozen archaeologists. Eric von Daeniken theories and books sold millions of copies despite the sad fact that most of what be claimed was utter nonsense (he had no archaeological background and count not even understand the symbolism).

20 years later came Apocalypto, the infamous movie on the Maya human sacrifices by Mel Gipson. Scholars were horrified. But actually several portions were quite authentic (taken straight from scenes depicted on Maya vases) again, at least the general public, who otherwise might know only Greek or Roman archaeology, learned about the Mayas of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.

Now for the last year everyone is talking about the end of the calendrical cycles in 2012. What I hope results is that more lay people will turn to the appropriate books (of Chilam Balam, Popol Vuh, etc) and will thus recognize those aspects of the craze which are exploitative nonsense, and which parts have a few remnants of actual factual Maya lore.

Nostradamus ' 2012 prophecies

People around the world enjoy to study various predictions. Those of Nostradamus have been popular for many years. Although I was a university student in the 1960's, I never really got into New Age cults then or later, thought possibly because I was already so deep into field research on actual Mayan archaeology. During the 1970's I was living deep in the jungles of Guatemala mapping the large ancient Mayan city of Yaxha. It took me five years to have it created a National Park. It's most recent infamy was being selected as locus for the Survivor TV program. I lived there many years without the help of a Hollywood backup crew of an estimated several hundred support crew, cooks, etc. We survived by hunting, fishing, and raising our own vegetables (just like the ancient Maya).

I guess if I lived in Suburbia, perhaps I would have gone into New Age beliefs, but I tend to prefer to be closer to the actual research. Thus I do not delve much into Nostradamus's predictions and prophecies because learning about the Mayan beliefs keeps me and my staff plenty busy.

Will 2012 bring earthquakes, floods, natural disaster

I have experienced earthquakes in California, Peru, Mexico, St Louis (Missouri) and continuously in Guatemala. I have seen what an earthquake did to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. The only damage that I have personally seen that is worse than an earthquake is modern warfare: I was in Bosnia and Serbia this year (lecturing at the university in each capital city).

Floods and natural disaster are normal, and the Maya are already fully aware of cycles of total destruction (in the Popol Vuh). So there is no way for any of us, whether archaeologist with PhD and professorship position, to a New Age guru, to a person promoting the 2012 events to deny the potential for earthquakes, floods, and natural disaster for 2012. The last massive earthquake in Guatemala was circa 1976, so it is about the normal time to have another (though we hope not).

Volcanic eruptions as another natural disaster just waiting to happen in 2012

As I look out my window I can see four volcanic peeks on the near horizon. One erupts sporadically (appropriately named Fuego).

If there were not a hill blocking my view to the left, I would be able to see the even more spectacular eruptions of Pacaya Volcano.

I can remember back in the 1970's when the eruptions were more frequent and more violent.

One day that I was doing panoramic photography of Lake Atitlan (overlooking Panajachel, Guatemala), a volcano on the far horizon erupted. The view was so impressive I telephoned my girlfriend in Germany to tell her of the event (I was amazed that there was cell reception so high up in the mountains overlooking the lake. Plus there was perfect reception in Germany).

So having an entire chain of volcanos erupt is something that however unexpected, and definitely not predicted, neither by volcanologists nor archaeologists, is entirely possible in 2012.

Comets, meteor strikes for 2012

The meteor that struck off the coast of Yucatan millions of years ago is traditionally considered a major cause of the mass extinction of dinosaurs. The impact zone is Chicxulub. More recently an even later possible meteor impact zone in India has been proposed by Sankar Chatterjee to be the real cause.

Either way, these astroids or meteor strikes definitely caused the kind of disaster that would be comparable to what is predicted by Nostradamus. But I prefer to concentrate on the fact and fiction relative to the Mayan calender and prehispanic civilizations of the New World. There is so much more documentation for the Aztec, Mixtec, Toltec, and Zapotec (I jokingly call them the A-tec to Z-tec, since a thousand years ago there were so many diverse cultures in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

Although the Maya priest-astronomers were perfectly capable of accurately predicting the solstice, equinox and various celestial events, not even NASA or other space scientists today can predict when the next comet, meteor or astroid will smash into our planet Earth. So apocalypse or Armageddon caused by a comet or meteorite shower or a astroid that hits directly in the wrong place, is a challenge to predict (especially a thousand years ago from atop a Mayan pyramid temple.

Warfare, pestilence, plague, and drought are a bit easier to predict: we have all these on our doorstep already as we transition from 2009 into 2010, and it will only get worse in 2011 and logically in 2012 also (especially since the calendrical prediction is for late December 2012, so that means there is a full two years for war, plague, and drought to wreak havoc).

What's next for 2012: disease in general and plagues in particular

Between bird flu and swine flu, it is clear that disease and plagues are not figments of Hollywood exaggeration. Any and all tropical locations around the world are breeding grounds for diseases beyond comprehension. Having lived for years in remote tropical rain forests of Guatemala, I have seen and experienced situations of insects and disease that normally otherwise you would see only on the Discovery Channel or some gruesome Hollywood movie on the end of the world.

Since many of the diseases are very real, this is one avenue of approach to year 2012 cataclism.

So if you are curious about predictions and prophecies based on Mayan calendrical cycles, if you are a tad worried about apocalypse now but as reality in your city and your country (and not just as a name for a movie), and if Armageddon is predicted by your religion too, then there is clearly a lot more research to be done.

FLAAR, inherently a research institute, offers a balance: we have the research reference library, we have decades of experience with Mayan languages and culture, hieroglyphic inscriptions, epigraphy and iconography. So gradually we will expand our coverage since clearly the year 2012 is a subject of intense interest. Our feeling is that at least you should have the options of comments by an archaeologist, to counterbalance some of the excitement by New Age gurus.

Plus, it serves no useful purpose to simply summarily dismiss all year 2012 considerations as unrealistic. Warfare, disease, and natural disasters are all fully possible. Having the end of the human race caused by meteor strike or a comet is a bit more unlikely, but if you look at all the crators on our moon you can see that this kind of strike does happen.

So please return to our web site every month or so, as we add new documentation.


First posted December 14, 2009.


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