Maya apocalypse goes boom

World doesn’t end, ancient astronomy gets a boost

2012 SCIENCE NEWS TOP 25: 25

If you’re reading this story, the day the ancient Maya supposedly had the world scheduled to end has come and gone. Whew.

D. Stuart

It’s no shock that December 21, 2012, fizzled as the end of days. Earlier this year, anthropologists working at Maya ruins in Guatemala uncovered a written mention of the 2012 date that concerned political maneuvering way back in the day, not a prediction of Judgment Day (SN: 8/11/12, p. 15).

A team led by Marcello Canuto of Tulane University in New Orleans discovered and deciphered the 2012 allusion in hieroglyphs (above) carved on 22 staircase steps at an ancient Maya site called La Corona. The 1,300-year-old inscription describes two centuries of political activity.

Writing on one staircase block commemorated a visit to La Corona in 696 by the powerful ruler of a nearby Maya city. Although long thought by scholars to have been killed or captured in a 695 battle, the neighboring king — known as Jaguar Paw — apparently kept his position and dropped in on his allies in La Corona to demonstrate that he was still in charge. In the inscriptions, the beleaguered king refers to himself with a title denoting that he presided over the end of a key Maya calendar cycle in 692. Perhaps to further bolster his status, Jaguar Paw links himself to a distant date when the next calendar cycle would end — December 21, 2012.

Scientists excavating another Maya site in Guatemala found astronomical tables charting lunar and possible planetary cycles painted on the walls of a 1,200-year-old room (SN: 6/16/12, p. 10). This discovery provides the first direct evidence of astronomical information from ancient Maya civilization. Although the hieroglyphs and numbers aren’t apocalyptic, they’re certainly stellar.

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