The University of Texas at Austin
  • Maya Scholar Debunks World-Ending Myth

    By Leslie Lyon-House
    Published: Dec. 17, 2012

    As we hurtle toward the end of 2012, the conversation about a certain date with roots in an ancient Maya calendar has reached a fever pitch.

    Dec. 21, 2012, has taken over popular culture this year: It’s been the subject of movies, books and news shows. The date and its supposed prophecy that the world will come to an end has been the subject of water cooler conversations and international media attention.

    But the truth regarding the date, according to renowned Maya scholar and Art History Professor David Stuart, is that the day is indeed meaningful — but not in the way you might think.

    UT Austin Art History Professor David Stuart

    David Stuart discusses the new inscriptions with colleagues from Tulane University and Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Seated left to right: Marcello Canuto (Tulane), Stuart, Tomás Barrientos (UVG), Jocelyn Ponce (UVG).

    “The Maya never actually predicted the end of times,” says Stuart, who recently won a UNESCO medal for his lifetime contributions to the study of ancient Maya culture and archaeological sites, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites. “In the Maya scheme of time, the approaching date was thought to be the turn of an important cycle, or as they put it, the end of 13 bak’tuns. The thing is, there are many more bak’tuns still to come.”

    Stone block from step showing text in Maya hieroglyphs.

    Stone block from step showing text in Maya hieroglyphs. The text commemorates the visit to La Corona by the great Maya king Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ in 696 AD. The mention of 2012 is in the lower right corner. (Click image to enlarge.)

    Earlier this year, Stuart was working with colleagues at the ruins of La Corona in the Guatemalan jungle, where they excavated many inscribed stones that had been part of a staircase. As the world’s leading epigrapher of Maya script, Stuart was brought in to decipher the 56 glyphs carved into the stones. He discovered 200 years of political history and, to his surprise, the second known reference in Maya culture to the so-called end date of Dec. 21, 2012.

    But despite the popular misconception, the date doesn’t predict the end of times. Rather, it was intended to promote continuity during a time of crisis.

    “The hieroglyphs emphasized seventh century history and politics, linking the reign of an ancient king to the turn of the 13th bak’tun many centuries later,” Stuart explains. “The point was to associate the divine king’s time on the throne to time on a cosmic scale.

    David Stuart

    David Stuart [Photo: Marsha Miller]

    “The monument commemorated a royal visit to La Corona in AD 696 by the most powerful Maya ruler of that time, a few months after his defeat by a longstanding rival in AD 695,” said Stuart. “This ruler was visiting allies and allaying their fears after his defeat. It was a time of great political turmoil in the Maya region, and this king felt compelled to allude to a larger cycle of time that happens to end in 2012.”

    Rather than prophesy, the 2012 reference served to place this king’s troubled reign and accomplishments into a larger cosmological framework. In times of crisis, the ancient Maya used their calendar to promote continuity and stability.

    Assuming 21st century soothsayers are incorrect about the impending end of the world, Stuart’s research will continue in 2013, starting in January with the Maya Meetings, an international conference held, alternately, in Austin and Antigua, Guatemala, each year. Stuart has served as director of the event since 2004, and this year it is a family affair. Stuart’s father, George E. Stuart, will be the keynote speaker at this year’s meeting, which will be in Austin.

    The elder Stuart was hired as a cartographer for the National Geographic Society and remained on staff for nearly 40 years working in a variety of capacities, including as editor for archaeology of National Geographic Magazine and chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration. He founded the Center for Maya Research in 1984.

    • Quote 2
      Steve Sterling said on Jan. 15, 2013 at 8:43 a.m.
      Just as I thought, the 2012 end of the world theory is just a matter of misrepresentation of the Mayan Calendar reckoning. Initially when I heard of this prediction I thought it was just a Mayan prank. If you want credible and tested information on the end of the world the prophecies of the Bible is the only source to consult. Although you will not find a set date in the scriptures as to when the world will end, you will certainly find consistent prophetic accounts among the writings of prophets from various eras and social backgrounds validating that fact.
    • Quote 2
      Tricks Lanka said on Jan. 4, 2013 at 2:28 p.m.
      Thanks for this great Article !!
    • Quote 2
      Abuzar Khan said on Jan. 2, 2013 at 3:23 a.m.
      Now I can tell my friends why the world didn't end. Thank you, Dr. Stuart.
    • Quote 2
      Serge Cleaning said on Dec. 30, 2012 at 10:37 a.m.
      Thank you, Dr. Stuart, I didn't believe in it anyway.
    • Quote 2
      Samuel said on Dec. 26, 2012 at 4:04 a.m.
      Even i thought it was "Mayans"...Thank you for making certain things clear.
    • Quote 2
      Bart said on Dec. 23, 2012 at 5:42 p.m.
      Thank you for the arcticle, though I didn't believe it in first place.
    • Quote 2
      Brett Daniels said on Dec. 22, 2012 at 8:50 p.m.
      Great post!I’ve been pretty intrigued by things Myan since all of this December 21st and end of the world stuff started. I just finished a great book you might like called “Mayan Interface” by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin. It’s along the lines of adventure and transformation, and it’s a pretty good read. You can check out the website to find more about it, http://www.madeirapress.com/Mayan_Interface.html. Thanks for the post.
    • Quote 2
      WILLIAM CHINEBU said on Dec. 21, 2012 at 5:13 p.m.
      This is a rather interesting read. It clearly debunks the theories of many uninformed alarmist who have been using this to predict the end of the world. The truth is that many calendar cycles have existed in many cultures. The end of one cycle signifies the beginning of another. A very simplistic analogy will be our normal calendar year. The world does not end every December 31st rather another year starts the next day. Thanks for this article!
    • Quote 2
      maria rodman said on Dec. 21, 2012 at 3:31 p.m.
      I think they said 1320/21/00
    • Quote 2
      Sean said on Dec. 21, 2012 at 1:44 a.m.
      David Stuart is one of the best professors I have had at UT. Great professor with an impressive body of work throughout his life.
    • Quote 2
      Rene Flores said on Dec. 20, 2012 at 4:27 p.m.
      Thank you to Elizabeth for pointing out the all-too-common error of using the word "Mayan" where "Maya" should be used. And thank you to UT Communications for graciously correcting the mistake. It is refreshing nowadays to see a commitment to professionalism and accuracy.
    • Quote 2
      Elizabeth said on Dec. 19, 2012 at 8:47 a.m.
      On the UT front page it has "Mayans" in the title of this article. That is incorrect. You only say Mayan when referring to their language, otherwise it's Maya. The article is correct, but the link to get to the article is not.
      • Quote 2
        Cory Leahy said on Dec. 19, 2012 at 9:06 a.m.
        Thank you, Elizabeth! We've corrected the home page. --Cory Leahy, University Communications
    • Quote 2
      Vidhu Shekhar Chaturvedi said on Dec. 18, 2012 at 7:54 p.m.
      Thank you, Dr. Stuart !
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