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Professor explains 2012 Mayan doomsday prophecy

Published: Monday, December 3, 2012

Updated: Monday, December 3, 2012 08:12

The beginning of December brings the world one step closer to Dec. 21, 2012, and increasing global anxiety over an approaching “Mayan Doomsday.”

However, Christian Wells, an associate professor of anthropology, held a lecture on Nov. 30 to separate the fact from fiction of the legend. To his laughing audience in the Continuing Education building, Wells described what people believe will happen on Dec. 21, when the ancient Mayan calendar ends and when assorted “doomsday” scenarios are expected to take place. However, Wells denounced the apocalyptic claims.

“You still have to do your holiday shopping — the world is not going to end,” he said.

The ancient Mayans, Wells said, were skilled astronomers who were able to accurately predict the movements of the galaxy for centuries in advance of their time. According to their calendar, which Wells said is a detailed list of astronomical events that occurs over 13 cycles of 144,000 days, Dec. 21, 2012, marks the end of the 13th and final “B’ak’tun,” or cycle.

Wells said many of the ideas on blogs and forums from the Internet describe various ways this date will bring an end of civilization. These ideas include a polar planetary shift, a shift of the Earth’s magnetic poles where “north becomes south” — an increase of Earth’s gravity in the Kuiper Belt, which would attract more comets and asteroids to hit the planet; or a series of solar flares and other astronomical phenomenon.

Using quotes from a panel of NASA researchers and physicists, Wells said these apocalyptic possibilities are highly unlikely from a scientific and historic perspective. Rather than focus on what could happen on what many call the “Mayan Doomsday,” Wells based his lecture on where all these ideas came from.

He said the ideas are rooted in claims of new age groups that have been recording discoveries of the ancient Maya since the 1950s. Wells said the Mayan “doomsday prophecy” comes from two directly translated statements which are that “the 13th calendrical cycle will end on Dec. 21, 2012,” and “This is the destruction of the world. This then is its end.”

“What’s happened … is New Age religions have pulled these sentences out of the literary context, strung them together, and created a whole new meaning about apocalypse,” Wells said.

This reinterpretation of the Mayan calendar, Wells said, also fascinated Spanish explorers in the 1550s when they collected a detailed history from the Maya and a book they titled the “Popol Vuh.” This states that at the end of the calendar “there will occur a blackness (or spectacle), and the god of the nine will come down to the (Earth).”

Wells, who studies Mayan culture in his anthropology work, said this message came out of its original context.

“The Mayan Doomsday prophecy, I think, is actually a narrative about sustainability,” Wells said. “The Maya were great astronomers and knew exactly where they were in relation to larger cycles and trends in the environment and the universe. That’s what sustainability is all about — knowing your place in the world.”

Wells said the whole “doomsday prophecy,” was misconstrued by New Age religions that tried to apply the sustainability message to a global scale, turning it into a message of collapse and apocalypse.

According to a poll done of 16,262 people in 26 countries by Ipsos Global Public Affairs earlier this year, Wells said, one out of 10 people believe in the legend. In the U.S., 12 percent believe in it.

“If the poll is representative, then 37 million people in the U.S. agree or believe that the Mayan calendar marks the end of the world,” Wells said. “Even if it’s not representative, and even a fraction of this is true — say a million — that’s still a lot of people.”

The lecture, titled “The Maya Doomsday Prophecy and the End of the World,” was sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USF and the USF Humanities Institute.

“We have reason to be worried about climate change and the fiscal cliff that’s coming up,” Wells said.

But, he said, the biggest threat to the earth in 2012 was “the human race itself.”

 

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