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A Mayan temple The temple El Castillo is in Chichén Itzá, a once-thriving Maya city. The temple’s four sides have a total of 365 steps—one for each day of the year. (DEA / C. Novara / De Agostini / Getty Images)

Mystery of the Maya

Why are so many people talking about an ancient calendar?

You may have heard that the world is going to end on December 21. This rumor has been the source of a lot of conversation— and jokes—for months.

So where did this idea come from? A calendar created by an ancient people called the Maya supposedly ends on December 21, 2012. Some people believe this is a sign that the world will cease to exist on that date. But there’s nothing to worry about. Researchers say the ancient Maya didn’t predict doomsday— for that day or any other.

“All the references that we have that come from the monuments the Maya carved— and from the books that they wrote—tell us that nothing spectacular is going to happen on that day,” says Anthony Aveni. He is an expert on the ancient Maya at Colgate University in New York.


The Maya were a group of American Indians who lived in the area that is now Mexico and Central America. The height of their empire was from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. During that time, they developed an advanced writing system. But it was their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy that really set them apart from other ancient cultures.

The Maya carefully tracked the movements and cycles of the planets, moon, and sun long before anyone else did. They used this information to create a highly accurate calendar that closely resembles the one we use today. It contained 365 days and was based on Earth’s orbit around the sun.

“You hear all about how amazing [the Maya] were, and I think they were,” says Aveni. “They were very accurate astronomers. Doing all of that without telescopes is amazing.”

WHY 2012?

But it was another Maya calendar, called the Long Count, that people are focused on today. Rather than days or months, it marked a much larger span of time—thousands of years into the past and future. The calendar starts from the date the Maya believed the world was created, which was about 5,125 years ago.

The largest unit of time on the calendar is a baktun , which is approximately 394 years. After 13 baktun, a great cycle of the Long Count comes to an end. The end of the current cycle will take place on December 21. It’s the end of this cycle that some people have confused with the end of the world. Researchers say the Maya never predicted the date would have any significance. “I would think that if [the Maya believed] the world was going to come to an end [on December 21], that date would be prominently written down,” says Aveni.

Like many experts on the Maya, he believes the date simply marks the end of one time period. Then, he says, “the cycle begins again. It goes on and on and on.”

This article appeared in the December 3 & 10, 2012 issue of Scholastic News Edition 4. For more from Scholastic News, click here.

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