It's a good news/bad news situation for believers in the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. The good news is that the Mayan "Long Count" calendar may not end on Dec. 21, 2012 (and, by extension, the world may not end along with it). The bad news for prophecy believers? If the calendar doesn't end in December 2012, no one knows when it actually will - or if it has already.
A new critique, published as a chapter in the new textbook "Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World" (Oxbow Books, 2010), argues that the accepted conversions of dates from Mayan to the modern calendar may be off by as much as 50 or 100 years. That would throw the supposed and overhyped 2012 apocalypse off by decades and cast into doubt the dates of historical Mayan events. (The doomsday worries are based on the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, much as our year ends on Dec. 31.)
The Mayan calendar was converted to today's Gregorian calendar using a calculation called the GMT constant, named for the last initials of three early Mayanist researchers. Much of the work emphasized dates recovered from colonial documents that were written in the Mayan language in the Latin alphabet, according to the chapter's author, Gerardo Aldana, University of California, Santa Barbara professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies.
Later, the GMT constant was bolstered by American linguist and anthropologist Floyd Lounsbury, who used data in the Dresden Codex Venus Table, a Mayan calendar and almanac that charts dates relative to the movements of Venus.
"He took the position that his work removed the last obstacle to fully accepting the GMT constant," Aldana said in a statement. "Others took his work even further, suggesting that he had proven the GMT constant to be correct."
But according to Aldana, Lounsbury's evidence is far from irrefutable.
"If the Venus Table cannot be used to prove the FMT as Lounsbury suggests, its acceptance depends on the reliability of the corroborating data," he said. That historical data, he said, is less reliable than the Table itself, causing the argument for the GMT constant to fall "like a stack of cards."
Aldana doesn't have any answers as to what the correct calendar conversion might be, preferring to focus on why the current interpretation may be wrong. Looks like end-of-the-world theorists may need to find another ancient calendar on which to pin their apocalyptic hopes.
10 failed Doomsday Predictions
With the upcoming disaster film "2012" and the current hype about Mayan calendars and doomsday predictions, it seems like a good time to put such notions in context.
Most prophets of doom come from a religious perspective, though the secular crowd has caused its share of scares as well. One thing the doomsday scenarios tend to share in common: They don't come to pass.
Here are 10 that didn't pan out, so far:
The Prophet Hen of Leeds, 1806
History has countless examples of people who have proclaimed that the return of Jesus Christ is imminent, but perhaps there has never been a stranger messenger than a hen in the English town of Leeds in 1806. It seems that a hen began laying eggs on which the phrase "Christ is coming" was written. As news of this miracle spread, many people became convinced that doomsday was at hand — until a curious local actually watched the hen laying one of the prophetic eggs and discovered someone had hatched a hoax.
The Millerites, April 23, 1843
A New England farmer named William Miller, after several years of very careful study of his Bible, concluded that God's chosen time to destroy the world could be divined from a strict literal interpretation of scripture. As he explained to anyone who would listen, the world would end some time between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. He preached and published enough to eventually lead thousands of followers (known as Millerites) who decided that the actual date was April 23, 1843. Many sold or gave away their possessions, assuming they would not be needed; though when April 23 arrived (but Jesus didn't) the group eventually disbanded—some of them forming what is now the Seventh Day Adventists.
Mormon Armageddon, 1891 or earlier
Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, called a meeting of his church leaders in February 1835 to tell them that he had spoken to God recently, and during their conversation he learned that Jesus would return within the next 56 years, after which the End Times would begin promptly.
Halley's Comet, 1910
In 1881, an astronomer discovered through spectral analysis that comet tails include a deadly gas called cyanogen (related, as the name imples, to cyanide). This was of only passing interest until someone realized that Earth would pass through the tail of Halley's comet in 1910. Would everyone on the planet be bathed in deadly toxic gas? That was the speculation reprinted on the front pages of "The New York Times" and other newspapers, resulting in a widespread panic across the United States and abroad. Finally even-headed scientists explained that there was nothing to fear.
Pat Robertson, 1982
In May 1980, televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson startled and alarmed many when — contrary to Matthew 24:36 ("No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven...") he informed his "700 Club" TV show audience around the world that he knew when the world would end. "I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world," Robertson said.
Heaven's Gate, 1997
When comet Hale-Bopp appeared in 1997, rumors surfaced that an alien spacecraft was following the comet — covered up, of course, by NASA and the astronomical community. Though the claim was refuted by astronomers (and could be refuted by anyone with a good telescope), the rumors were publicized on Art Bell's paranormal radio talk show "Coast to Coast AM." These claims inspired a San Diego UFO cult named Heaven's Gate to conclude that the world would end soon. The world did indeed end for 39 of the cult members, who committed suicide on March 26, 1997.
Nostradamus, August 1999
The heavily obfuscated and metaphorical writings of Michel de Nostrdame have intrigued people for over 400 years. His writings, the accuracy of which relies heavily upon very flexible interpretations, have been translated and re-translated in dozens of different versions. One of the most famous quatrains read, "The year 1999, seventh month / From the sky will come great king of terror." Many Nostradamus
devotees grew concerned that this was the famed prognosticator's vision of Armageddon.
Y2K, Jan. 1, 2000
As the last century drew to a close, many people grew concerned that computers might bring about doomsday. The problem, first noted in the early 1970s, was that many computers would not be able to tell the difference between 2000 and 1900 dates. No one was really sure what that would do, but many suggested catastrophic problems ranging from vast blackouts to nuclear holocaust. Gun sales jumped and survivalists prepared to live in bunkers, but the new millennium began with only a few glitches.
May 5, 2000
In case the Y2K bug didn't do us in, global catastrophe was assured by Richard Noone, author of the 1997 book "5/5/2000 Ice: the Ultimate Disaster." According to Noone, the Antarctic ice mass would be three miles thick by May 5, 2000 — a date in which the planets would be aligned in the heavens, somehow resulting in a global icy death (or at least a lot of book sales). Perhaps global warming kept the ice age at bay.
God's Church Ministry, Fall 2008
According to God's Church minister Ronald Weinland, the end times are upon us-- again. His 2006 book "2008: God's Final Witness" states that hundreds of millions of people will die, and by the end of 2006, "there will be a maximum time of two years remaining before the world will be plunged into the worst time of all human history. By the fall of 2008, the United States will have collapsed as a world power, and no longer exist as an independent nation." As the book notes, "Ronald Weinland places his reputation on the line as the end-time prophet of God."