Apocalypse, not so fast

Ancient Maya reference to 2012 involved politics, not prophecy

Although hieroglyphs previously found at an ancient Maya site may or may not mention December 21, 2012, as the end of time, don’t cancel any New Year’s Eve plans. Scientists working at another Maya city have uncovered a second reference to the same 2012 date, and the writing on the wall — make that the staircase — concerns political turmoil back then, not apocalypse now.

STEP FORWARD Hieroglyphs carved on this 1,300-year-old Maya staircase step mention December 21, 2012, apparently as part of a nearby king’s efforts to shore up his waning power. D. Stuart

Anthropologists who discovered and deciphered the 2012 reference among hieroglyphs carved on 22 staircase steps at Guatemala’s La Corona site announced their find June 28 in Guatemala City.

“This text talks about ancient political history rather than prophecy,” says excavation codirector Marcello Canuto of Tulane University in New Orleans. “In times of crisis, the ancient Maya used their calendar to promote continuity and stability rather than to predict apocalypse.”

Two centuries of political history plays out in the 1,300-year-old inscription, says anthropologist David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin, who is in charge of deciphering the carved text.

On one staircase block, Stuart recognized a commemoration of a 696 visit to La Corona by the powerful ruler of Calakmul, a Maya site in what’s now southern Mexico. Long thought to have been killed or captured in a 695 battle lost to a rival kingdom, the Calakmul king apparently weathered that defeat and visited his allies at La Corona to convince them that he remained a strong ruler, Stuart suggests.

In the commemoration, the Calakmul king refers to himself with a title signifying that he presided over and celebrated the end of a key Maya calendar cycle in 692. To attribute special status to his weakened reign, Stuart says, the king also connects himself to a future date when the next calendar cycle would conclude — December 21, 2012.

To a Maya king stung by a major military setback, “the reference to 2012 might even have provided a comforting sense of inevitability” in his continued rule, remarks anthropologist Stephen Houston of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Researchers located La Corona 15 years ago, after decades of looted sculptures from the Maya city turning up on the antiquities black market. Canuto and anthropologist Tomás Barrientos of Universidad del Valle de Guatemala have led work at La Corona since 2007.

In May and June, the investigators decided to excavate at a building that looters had damaged nearly 40 years ago. Thieves had discarded staircase stones bearing carved writing in front of the structure. Digging produced additional discarded hieroglyphic stones and an intact step consisting of 12 carved stones.

At least 264 hieroglyphs appeared on the La Corona staircase, making it one of the longest known ancient Maya texts.

Linking the 2012 reference at La Corona to a nearby king’s political maneuvering, “while imaginative, is cogent and reasonable,” comments anthropologist David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis.

And if Canuto and Stuart’s proposal turns out to be wrong — well, it’s not the end of the world.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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