The End Is Nigh

You’ll have heard that there is a “Mayan Prophecy” that the end of the world is imminent, but I bet you haven’t heard any circumstantial details. Where was this prophecy written? Some stone inscription? An ancient partchment? Who discovered it? Can you see it in a museum?

I was trained to do job interviews, and there was always the possibility that someone might not be entirely honest, so there was a simple technique to expose deceit: you asked for more and more details. It’s very easy to remember minor details if you’re telling the truth, but difficult to invent them spontaneously but consistently when lying. I’m sure the police use the same sort of thing when questioning suspects.

The absence of detail about the “Mayan Prophecy” idea is a pretty good guide to its being fake, simply an internet fiction. In fact, it’s one of those rolling stories which mutates as it spreads, because, originally, it was a “Sumerian Prophecy” that the world was to end in 2003. It didn’t.

The Sumerian notion originated outside the internet in the books of Zecharia Sitchin, who made his own “translations” of real Mesopotamian inscriptions, readings which, to put it politely, were not consistent with what all other scholars get from them.

Mayan digits

Mayan digits

Once the world didn’t end (again) in 2003, some of the elements of the story were added to a new concept, that the world would end when the Mayan calendar ran out of digits. You know how children, newly introduced to numbers, sometimes go through a phase of thinking that there must be a “biggest number”? But they soon learn that you can always add one to any number. The Mayan calendar has no “biggest number” either.

The Mayans and related cultures used a “Long Count” system, which was simply the number of days since the beginning of time, a day which we call the 11th of August, 3114 BC. The earliest actual date using this system (found so far) is inscribed on a stone in Chiapas, Mexico, and denotes 1,124,333 days after the Creation. That’s 6th December 36 BC.

It’s striking that these ancient peoples were quite able to calculate numbers in the millions. They had their own notation, different to our modern one (which originated in India) and they counted in 20s, not 10s. A Mayan “digit” is a simple glyph which uses a dot to signify 1 and a bar to signify 5. Three bars and two dots is therefore 3*5 + 2*1 or 17. Today, a Mayan number is usually represented with the digits in decimal and periods between them, such as 12.17.3.2, which would be 12*20*20*20 + 17*20*20 + 3*20 + 2.

(Long Count numbers are actually slightly different to ordinary numbers. The third digit from the right rolls over at 18, not 20; probably because 17.19.19 plus one is 360 days, or close to a year.)

The next “round number” in Long Count dates is 13.0.0.0.0 or 21st December 2012. And the day after that is 13.0.0.0.1 and the day after is 13.0.0.0.2, and so on and so on, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The Mayans didn’t think that time was going to end at any particular string of digits, although they did have the general concept of cycles of time and history, and they probably had a bit of a party when a lot of digits flipped over.

Me, I’m most excitedly waiting for the instant when the date changes from 19.19.17.19.19 to 1.0.0.0.0.0 which will be midnight on Thursday, 12th October 4772. Let’s party like it’s 1999.

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