As popularly portrayed, the end of the world will occur on Dec. 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar stops. To late-night comedians and other sophisticates, the Mayan calendar is just another unscientific superstition by an indigenous group. On the other hand, New Agers and those preparing for the end should spend a little time with Mayan ethnography before succumbing to hysteria over another culture's prophecy.
The end of a calendric cycle does not mean time stops, any more than my outdoor digital thermometer blanking because of a dead battery means the temperature has dropped to absolute zero. Calendars are a measure of time, not time itself. Not that Dec. 21, 2012, is without significance to Mayans and us as well.
The Mayans developed numerous calendars, 17 by one count, which are used for various purposes. Some track religious cycles, others solar years, lunar phases or the appearance of Venus as the morning star or the evening star.
The calendar in question is the Mayan Long Count calendar, whose starting point is Aug. 11, 3114 BC by the Gregorian calendar. Mayans use a base-20 numerical system, so the long count is in multiples of 20 with the exception of the second "20," which is "18" to approximate the solar year (20 times 18 equals 360 days). Days are called kins; 20 days, uinals; 360 days, tuns; 7,200 days, k'atuns; and 144,000 days, baktuns.
The Mayans ascribe significance to calendric transitions: tuns are something like our New Year's celebrations and resolutions. Transformative possibilities are magnified with the longer cycle transitions of k'atuns, and baktuns. It is a baktun that is ending on Dec. 21, 2012, not the world.
According to Mayan elder Carlos Barrios, the current baktun is called The World of the Fourth Sun and what will emerge after Dec. 21, 2012, is The World of the Fifth Sun. Recently Barrios interviewed more than 600 Mayan elders about the significance of the calendric change. The World of the Fourth Sun is characterized by increased materialism accompanied by environmental degradation and individualism. According to Mayan prophecies, the end of the fourth world will see a breakdown of that materialism and Barrios interprets the current global financial crisis and massive environmental problems as an indication of the prophecies' fulfillment.
According to Mayan prophecy, the subsequent World of the Fifth Sun will see an eventual emergence of unity among the world's people, accompanied by an acceptance of diversity and a heightened sense of community values. Though it's a prophecy, Barrios states this will not happen without individual initiative. He writes: "The prophesied changes are going to happen, but our attitude and actions determine how harsh or mild they are. We need to act, to make changes, and to elect people to represent us who understand and who will take political action to respect the Earth."
Mayans are among many indigenous people who prophesy major changes ahead. As documented in the Alaska Native Heritage Center video "Living Dena'ina," Dena'ina elders have prophesied that the current world is unsustainable. Dena'ina writer Peter Kalifornsky described local control in "About the Old Dena'ina Life" where he states, "They did not depend on other villages." With globalization has come an erosion of local sovereignty, global energy expansion and population growth that is not sustainable and stability tenuously fragile. Now we are dependent on "other villages."
So in this small part of the world, Dena'ina elders advise subsequent generations to remember the old ways of hunting and fishing because some day globalized interdependence might collapse and we may need to know, for example, how to make a spruce root net to catch salmon. That's why Pete Bobby of Lime Village, then 53, showed his 13-year-old daughter how to kill a brown bear with a spear. Someday that might be useful information.
The question we should ask about indigenous prophecies is not, "OMG, is it true?" Neither should prophecy be the subject of ridicule. Prophecies reflect deep and important concerns a people have about their future. The question we should ask is, "Why is this a concern and should it also concern the broader culture?"
Dec. 21, 2012, seems to be as good a day as any for all of us to begin thinking about our community, our Earth and our sustainability. Eventually The World of the Fifth Sun needs to happen or our current practices will, in fact, be the end of the world as we know it.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.