The rock band REM may have sung, "It's the end of the world as we know it," but not according to the Mayans, despite some popular misconceptions about their ancient calendar.
Students in a University of Virginia summer course on "The Maya Today: Fiction and Reality" learned why the notion that pre-Columbian Mayans predicted the end of the world would happen Dec. 21, 2012, is all wrong. They learned not only the facts behind this misinterpretation, but also the basics of the complicated calendar system the Maya developed.
After two sessions, the teacher, Lydia Rodriguez, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistic anthropology in U.Va.'s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, had the class interpreting Mayan hieroglyphics to read dates. The students learned the days, months and years, similar to the Gregorian calendar Westerners use to express, for example, June 21, 2012.
Rodriguez said she could only give the basic rules of the Mayan calendar system because it is so complicated that even a semester-long course wouldn't be enough time to explain it. The Maya in the past did not show any concern about the world ending; their calendar – like ours – is organized to be infinite.
Rodriguez and her husband, Sergio Lopez, a visiting scholar in the Department of Anthropology, are also teaching about Mayan life today. The couple, from Spain, has done fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico, since 2006.
About 7.5 million people of Mayan descent live in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras; they speak around 30 related languages. Many Mayans have taken interest in reviving and maintaining parts of the culture, including language and hieroglyphics, the couple said.
Part of the course will expose U.Va. students to contemporary Mayans' struggles for human rights in the last decades of the 20th century. They will read excerpts of books and articles, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu's testimonial biography about Mayan involvement in Guatemala's civil war, which lasted from about 1960 until 1996. That year, a peace accord was made between the guerrillas and the government, negotiated by the United Nations. They will also learn about the 1994 Zapatista uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
"Besides learning about the calendar, I have learned how the Mayans' basic techniques in agriculture, communication and mathematics have laid some of the foundations of modern society," said Jaleesa Webster, a third-year student majoring in cognitive science with a minor in anthropology and one of the 13 students attending the daily 8 a.m. class. "This is a great class that, like most anthropology classes at U.Va., assists in giving an individual a more rounded view of non-Western societies."
For the Maya today, the 2012 apocalypse forecast is simply not part of their lives, Rodriguez said. She and Lopez lived in the village of Tila in Chiapas, with one of the Maya groups that lives there, the Chol. She studies how they think and talk about time and how the grammatical categories used to express time are reflected in their gestures, she said.
The Maya still deal with conflicts between traditional systems of communal land use, and market-oriented policies of land property. Land tenure is still one of the key areas of social and political conflict in Chiapas, Lopez said.
Clues about the Mayan prediction of the apocalypse, which has captivated U.S. popular culture, are mostly based on only one of thousands of monuments on which messages were carved, the Tortuguero monument. The right-side edges of the inscription are rubbed away, making it impossible to translate it completely, but the ending referred to is the end of the 13th "baktun," with each "baktun" equaling 400 Mayan years.
That hasn't stopped a "New Age" industry, commercials and films from springing up and using the 2012 apocalypse to sell their products.
Said Sam Early, a transfer student who is changing his major to anthropology, "A resounding theme is how we misrepresent other cultures in our media. We tend to see them as exotic and alien, with one or two archetypes defining all their citizens. In this class, we're given information and analyses that open our eyes to the diversity and depth that this civilization has."
– by Anne Bromley
June 21, 2012