Probably not the last blog entry I’ll ever write

Colby Cosh on the Mayan calendar and the end of the world

When I hear of people panicking over tomorrow’s “Mayan apocalypse”, I like to imagine future archaeologists reassuring people that the quirks of the long-abandoned and poorly understood “Gregorian calendar” are nothing to be alarmed about.

“You see, the ancients had not yet realized the superiority of an octal base for numerals; they used base-10 counting because at that time the recognized ‘humans’ still had a total of ten fingers each. (Please, don’t laugh; you must remember that they had not yet admitted non-primates to the Circle of Sentience.) This naturally led them to ascribe special numerological significance to periods of 100 and 1,000 years. But their calendar doesn’t in any sense ‘end’ tomorrow, on what they would have called the first of January, 6000.”

That’s one of the annoying things about the alarm over the “Mayan calendar”; their system of date reckoning doesn’t even “end” tomorrow, but merely undergoes a sort of odometer rollover, analogous to our Gregorian year 2000. So even if you believe that the Mayans (whose civilization was successfully annihilated by a few hundred Spanish guys) possessed some special cosmic insight, there is still no significance in tomorrow’s arrival of a new b’ak’tun. B’ak’tun periods last only 394 years, so there has already been one changeover since the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. The earliest “Mayan” inscriptions using the calendar go back to shortly before the time of Christ; they were well aware of historic timescales, clearly did not regard a b’ak’tun rollover as the end of history, and, who knows, might have celebrated their “millennium” much as we celebrated ours, give or take a bit of animal sacrifice here and there.

None of this will reassure the congenitally terrified. Which reminds us of another irony: that the study of the Mayan calendar was a fairly significant hobby of one of the giants in today’s secular/rationalist pantheon, Richard Feynman. It’s not clear to me that Feynman’s study of the Mayan calendar led to any documentable new understanding of it; he seems to have approached the small handful of surviving calculation tables and engravings in the spirit of a puzzle, re-establishing for his own amusement what experts had already found. But it did lead to a memorable 1971 Caltech public lecture on Mayan mathematics and date-reckoning, and by his own account Feynman became knowledgeable enough to help expose fake Mayan codices when they appeared later in the 1970s. If only he were here to help with the scoffing.

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