In the last half- century, modern scholars have made an astounding intellectual journey. Beginning in the 1950s and ’60s, archaeologists and historians finally began the rigorous process of understanding many key aspects of ancient Maya civilization, much of it by “cracking the code” of the elaborate Maya hieroglyphic script, left to us on hundreds of stone monuments and ceramic vessels. This work has enveloped me for most of my life, with my interest in the Maya beginning when I was a boy accompanying my parents on their expeditions to remote jungle ruins back in the 1970s. Over the years I’ve been incredibly fortunate to participate in this transformation of knowledge, working with many colleagues in diverse fields to bring the ancient Maya from the realm of prehistory into that of history. Now, after several exciting decades, their written record is mostly understood, and it has forever changed our view of Maya history, religion, and culture. I like to think that we’re now at a place in the study of the ancient Maya not unlike where Egyptologists were in the early nineteenth century, at which time an ancient civilization suddenly was ripe for study in grand detail, right on the heels of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean- François Champollion.
With regard to the Maya, we are nowadays in a similar “heady” time, albeit with far more scientific methodology and context in hand than early Egyptology ever had. But has the popular understanding of ancient Mesoamerica and the Maya advanced so much? I have to wonder. Lately I find myself confused and even frustrated by what I see in the popular representation of the Maya in today’s media, whether it be in print or on- screen. Seldom can I roam through a large retail bookstore, sit in front of a television, or surf the Web without seeing some reference to the year 2012, now just a couple of years away as I write this. Many of the books on 2012 have evocative, even alarming titles, such as Apocalypse 2012: An Investigation into Civilization’s End; or The World Cataclysm in 2012: The Maya Countdown to the End of Our World; or 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl; or Maya Cosmogenesis 2012: The True Meaning of the Maya Calendar End- Date. According to many of these strange- sounding books and TV shows— and none of them is ever consistent in its message— the ancient Maya, having some keen insight into the mystical workings of our planet and the cosmos, were able to predict that the world would end or in some way be radically transformed in the year 2012—on the winter solstice December 21, to be exact (although, again, some sources differ about the precise day).
This is all complete nonsense. As someone who has studied the Maya for nearly all of his life, and who specializes in reading their ancient texts in order to understand their history, religion, and culture, I have to lay down the line and assert that any such statements about the Maya predicting the world’s demise or, alternatively, some “transformation of consciousness” in 2012 is, to put it as simply and directly as possible, wrong. Not only wrong, but misleading. There’s something larger at work here, more than just the ideas of a few kooks who have little interest in real Maya history and culture. The 2012 hubbub seems to be the most recent in a long chain of related theories and ideas about Mesoamericans, and the Maya in particular, depicting them as somehow oddball, not “of this world,” or having some strong mystical link to other realms and dimensions. As early as the nineteenth century, the emerging accounts of ancient civilizations in Mexico were widely seen as too impossibly advanced to be the handiwork of “Indians,” especially among many in the young United States, where native populations were being slaughtered, displaced, and culturally marginalized along an ever- increasing frontier. Some people claimed that the impressive ruins of Central America had to be the works of Phoenicians, Israelites, Scandinavians (?!), or even inhabitants of the lost continent of Atlantis. How could “Indians” have built such great cities and created such artwork?—or so the thinking went.
This notion was largely dispelled among scholars by the mid-1800s, as archaeology blossomed and exploration established no doubt about historical and cultural links between the ruined cities and the native inhabitants of the area. But by the twentieth century, the same vein of thinking had morphed somewhat, now depicting the ancient Maya not so much as Old World seafarers but as peaceful, star- gazing intellectuals little concerned with the real world of human affairs. No wonder, perhaps, that by the 1970s, pop culture references to the exotic Maya had them making direct contact with aliens, who, after all, must have built their cities using spaceships. Even today we see the same motif in movies and books. The most recent Indiana Jones film— always good PR for archaeology— shows Maya pyramids in the Amazon, of all places, guarding crystal skulls and flying saucers.
At present, with the ominous year 2012 fast approaching, it isn’t surprising that many of these same ideas are back in the news. According to many breathless writers and to TV accounts, the “Maya calendar will end,” and the Maya were somehow able to tap in to their mystical knowledge to predict the future of our time. At the very least, through some supposed special connections to the outer cosmos or to the inner being of humanity (depending on what you read), the Maya alone were able to predict a coming end of times, a galactic alignment with the rising sun, and the transformation of human consciousness, among other weird and great insights. I’m convinced that these outlandish claims about 2012 and its meaning (as if it needs a meaning) are the latest manifestations of a deep- seated idea within the American popular imagination, that Mesoamerican peoples and the “mysterious Maya” are exotic and even, in some way, alien.
Fundamentally, this speaks to an inability in much of our own culture, seldom addressed or even recognized, to confront the fact that many ancient Americans were as civilized as their counterparts in the Old World. There’s a lot of intellectual baggage behind these thoughts and denials, some going back to centuries- old notions about “the Indian” as a noble savage, or maybe just a savage. Couple these ideas with the profound cultural barrier that exists between the United States and the history and culture of Mexico and Central America, and you have a recipe for major cultural misunderstanding.
To me, the whole situation reveals the fact that modern America still has a difficult time grasping the reality of ancient advanced cultures south of our border. If one looks at attitudes about Mexico and illegal “aliens” today, maybe this is not so surprising. The irony is acute. For just at the moment when decades of hard work in the field and in the libraries have paid off, when we can proudly claim to have cracked the Maya code, most of the loudest “expert” voices are those who simply misrepresent the truth about the Maya, a remarkable people who deserve far, far better. In other words, nearly all of the books and television shows on 2012 are by gurus and spiritualists who wouldn’t know a Maya glyph if one hit them on the nose. I’m convinced that the emerging 2012 phenomenon says far more about today’s culture and its larger concerns than about the ancient Maya.
This profound misrepresentation of the Maya motivated the writing of this book. In my outlook, the reality of Maya accomplishments is far more interesting and awe- inspiring than the ubiquitous false claims about their culture and what, if anything, they had to say about the future. This book is not about New Age thinking but instead about old age thought, based on what ancient Maya records, as best we can understand them, actually had to say about time and the workings of the cosmos, and about their place— not ours— within this complex worldview.
Because 2012 has no prominent role in anything the ancient Maya ever wrote (only one clear reference to the date exists among thousands of inscriptions), this book takes a wider look at the Maya concepts of time and at the philosophy that gave rise to them, at least as we can best understand the two. One of my overarching goals is to provide ample evidence that the real intellectual achievements of ancient Maya timekeeping and worldview— incomplete as what has been passed down to us is— are far more impressive and remarkable than any of the more popular outrageous and wrongheaded claims about Maya uniqueness or otherworldliness. The ancient Maya are worthy of study and admiration not because they are strange, but because they are altogether human, and because they developed a compelling vision of time unlike that of any other civilization before or since. Their layered but unified philosophy of time and the cosmos no doubt seems very foreign to our way of thinking about the universe, but because of our common humanity, we can approach it, understand much of it, and give credit where credit is due.
I’ve learned a great deal about the Maya in the course of writing this book, and in fact, in it, I present a few important ideas for the first time. For example, it’s become clear to me that published descriptions of the Maya calendar have often been wrong, or at the very least incomplete, even in the academic literature considered the standard reference works on the subject. In chapter 8 I present what I believe to be the first account of how the ancient Maya structured their view of “deep time” using numbers far larger than previously thought. Theirs was a conception of cosmic time that dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many magnitudes of scale. Many of these new ideas might be half- baked at this early stage, and they will need careful review by colleagues and future students, but I’m excited at the prospects that we may finally be much closer to understanding the big picture of how the Maya and their fellow Mesoamericans “made” time, and created a calendar of remarkable insight and mathematical skill.
Although it might be surprising to some readers, this is not a book about ancient Maya astronomy. There are reasons for this. First, despite having a long career in Maya archaeology and epigraphy, I’m far from being an expert in the arcane study of ancient Venus tables, eclipse records, or moon ages— and, frankly, all those numbers make my head hurt. Several colleagues know far more about those things than I do, and have written clear and accessible treatments that I could never improve upon. But the main reason I’ve avoided a focus on astronomy touches on a larger point I hope to make: it’s simply that the Maya and their Mesoamerican neighbors, while masters at watching and understanding the night sky, have for far too long been singled out in this area as strangely precocious in having advanced knowledge of planetary cycles and the like. Astronomy has been a focus of Maya research— sometimes the focus— for a very, very long time. In fact, much of the work on Maya art and hieroglyphs back in the 1920s and ’30s involved little else. In playing down the themes of astronomy in these pages, I in no way wish to deny their importance, but I do hope to shift the conversation away from the night sky somewhat, at least momentarily, in order to show that the Maya calendar and the time concepts underlying it had many other interesting dimensions. I also want to stress that this book isn’t about critiquing the various ideas and theories among New Age thinkers, the so- called “2012-ologists,” concerning that year. These pseudo- scholars purport to know what will happen, and they even claim some special knowledge about the Maya, but the published works I have seen are neither very sophisticated nor informed by even a cursory knowledge of Maya archaeology, history, or culture. I’ve learned from experience that a point- by- point refutation of their oddball theories would probably fall on deaf ears, for scholarship and understanding of Maya culture are not really what’s of interest to them. Instead, their ideas seem to originate from a very different kind of mentality, one that is often self- centered and rooted in complex and varied agendas about the challenges and worries of the present day: the environment, politics, and a quest for inner spirituality.
So, for me, a great many of the doomsday predictions and radical ideas about 2012 say far, far more about the tensions pervading our own society and culture than anything about the ancient Maya. This book looks at how scholarship of the twentieth century, influenced by those ideas of the Maya as so strangely “other,” steered their vision in the popular imagination toward the place we now find ourselves, where the ancient Maya are somehow seen as strange harbingers of our own future. In sum, what follows is really about time and its place in Maya culture. It’s also about how Western academics and popular culture have struggled to understand it. It examines history, ancient texts, modern Maya religion, and the early development of research to show how the Maya conceived of a remarkable structure to time and space that’s significant on its own as a compelling human achievement.
September 8, 2009
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Excerpted from The Order of Days by David Stuart. Copyright © 2012 by David Stuart. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.