Latin America Magazine.

2012: The story of a false apocalypse

02-04-2012 by Frederik François

Did the Maya really predict that the world would end in December of 2012? The answer is a clear and evident ‘no’. This short article retraces the origins of this false myth and prophecy that has attracted a wide audience over the last year and dispels the notion that judgment day is upon is…


In the 1960’s, workers building a cement factory stumbled by accident upon carved monuments on a site that is now called ‘El Tortuguero’ in the southernmost part of the Mexican province of Tabasco. The site, probably looted before as was the case with many former Maya cities, turned out to be an important small city, subjected to the much better known city of Palenque. Most of the carved monuments that were retrieved date back to the 7th century during the reign of King Jaguar or Balam Ahau (644 – 679). At the time, with the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs still in its infancy and the monuments damaged, one of the monuments – called Monument 6 – was broken up: four pieces ended up in a local museum in Mexico (due to the rising interest, the tablets were moved to the city of Villahermose about 30 miles away and are at display at El Museo Regional de Anthropologia de Carlos Pellicer Cámara (; named after the Mexican poet and traveler who saved for instance some Olmec sculptures of La Venta), one piece in the Metropolitan museum in New York and two in private collections. It is this monument that forms almost by itself the start of all Maya prophecies on the coming apocalypse…

A note on the Maya calendar

Before continuing, it is important to quickly address the Maya calendar. There was:

– The 365-day solar calendar which resembles ours, and is cyclical (called Haab)

– The nine-day cycle which rotated like our days of the week

– Most ancient and widespread one is the sacred 260-day Tzolk’in with its 13 numerical coefficients and twenty names. The Maya expressed most times in a combination of this calendar and the 365-day solar calendar, which is called CR or Calendar Round with 52-year cycles.

– The Long Count, comparable to our modern year-count, dating back and counting up from an arbitrary ‘starting’ point, 11 (or 13) August 3114 BC and which is not 0 in the Maya calendar, but The clock is reset to zero for unknown reasons when the top digit reached 13 and was cause for the Maya to celebrate.

So December 21st, 2012 is 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in, a cycle of 13 Bak’tuns or 5.126 years (5.126,37 years ends, 1 Bak’tun is 394,3 solar years) and this date marks the first time in 5.126 years that the Maya Long Count calendar will reach again, it’s ‘starting’ date.

Decipherment of Monument 6

“I’m partly to blame for the attention given to Monument 6, after some years ago when I posted a brief, off-the-cuff analysis of each glyph on a listserv, where I labeled the passage as the “Tortuguero Prophecy” (see below). Little did I know back then this would soon help set off a frenzy on many New Age websites, associated forum discussions, and even a few book chapters.”

Picture 1: The Original Form of Tortuguero, Monument 6. (Main section drawing by I. Graham, right wing by D. Stuart). From the Maya decipherment Blog (see ‘further reading’).


This was written in 2011 by eminent Mayanist David Stuart, professor at the University of Austin-Texas, a Latin American studies powerhouse. Indeed, a couple of years before, in 1996, David Stuart and Stephen Housten (professor at Brown University) translated the final glyphs (a carved or inscribed symbol, which may be a pictogram, ideogram or part of a writing system such as a syllable, or a logogram) of Monument 6 for the first time as such:


Tzuhtz-(a)j-oom u(y)-uxlajuun pik

(ta) Chan Ajaw ux(-te’) Uniiw.

Uht-oom ?

Y-em(al)?? Bolon Yookte’ K’uh ta ?.

“The Thirteenth ‘Bak’tun” will be finished

(on) Four Ajaw, the Third of Uniiw (K’ank’in).

? will occur.

(It will be) the descent(??) of the Nine Support? God(s) to the ?.”


Picture 2: Monument 6 (detail) – the right-wing panel of the Monument shown in picture This is reminiscent of what Michael D. Coe, a prominent Maya scholar, wrote in The Maya, as early as 1966: “there is a suggestion…that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [Bak’tun

Since then, other translations have come under scrutiny. In his book “2012: The new Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse”, Matthew Restall (professor at Penn State University) lists these possibilities:

The thirteenth one will end on 4 Ahau, the third of Uniiw. There will occur blackness and the descent of the Bolon Yookte’ god to the red.

Or: … There will occur a seeing, the display of the god Bolon Yookte’ in a great investiture.


The thirteenth calendrical cycle will end on the day 4 Ahau, the third of Uniiw, when there will occur blackness (or a spectacle) and the God of the Nine will come down to the red (or be displayed in a great investiture.

Upon reading the significance of this fragment is very unclear – one of the reasons being that we know little about the god B’olon Yookte. Needless to say that many interpretations are therefore circulating, and one of them is the ‘end of the world’ cataclysmic event.

Recent analysis by Sven Gronemeyer (University of Bonn) and Barbara Macleod offer yet another view on this fragment. Gronemeyer and MacLeod scrutinized Monument 6 again and, according to them, ]the inscription announces the witnessing of the deity Bolon Yokte’ K’uh who will be publicly displayed by the occasion of his investiture. This may happen by the enrobing and/or parading of an effigy of the said deity, but they assert that this event was indeed planned for 2012 and not the 7th century:


It will be completed the 13th b’ak’tun.

It is 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in

and it will happen a ‘seeing'[?].

It is the display of B’olon-Yokte’

in a great “investiture


Houston, followed by Stuart, contest this view. For them, this closing passage on the Monument does not pertain to the Bak’tun ending but it instead serves to reiterate a key dedication episode highlighted earlier in the inscription:


“The Thirteenth Bak’tun” will be finished

(on) Four Ahaw, the Third of K’ank’in.

? will occur.

(It will be) the descent(?)

of the Nine Support (?) God(s) to the ?


They also believe that no prophecy about 2012 likely exists at all in Monument 6’s inscription. The passage is a re-statement of elaboration of the main topic, the dedication of a shrine or tomb where this monument was likely found back in the 1960’s. So the mention of 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in is an isolated anchor within a larger narrative, projecting a rhetorical punt into the future about the nature of the main historical event. The last few glyphs should therefore be viewed as compromising a record of a contemporary episode – a dedication – with a projection forward to a date of calendrical importance like an anniversary of the event and the start of a new millennium.

Other renowned Maya scholars and epigraphers such as Nikolai Grube (university of Bonn), and Simon Martin (from the university of Pennsylvania museum) come close to Houston and Stuart, stating that the fragment points to “the end of the 13th Bak’tun which we will see in the year 2012, where ‘it will happen’ followed by something that cannot be read, and that ‘he will descend’. But this is not the end of the world for them either. Besides just using the actual inscription, there are more elements of the ‘myths’ that can easily be cast away.

Debunking the myth piece by piece

First of all, even if we could talk about ‘a prophecy’ (and again, this is NOT the case here) arguing that ‘The Maya’ predicted the end of the world is an enormous generalization since the Maya were never politically unified; they resembled the fragmented city-states of ancient Greece in political organization. It was the Maya of the city of El Tortuguero who carved Monument 6 and they alone, not ‘the Maya’ in general. So instead of seeing this on a macro scale in the sense of ‘the Maya’ as one people, one should look at it at a very local scale of just one city part of the Maya world, especially since Monument 6 includes the only known inscription depicting the end of the current 13-Bak’tun era in 2012 or, as some put it, ‘the end of the world’.

Second, the prophecy ‘believers’ only refer or use a handful of glyphs at the very end of Monument 6 (documented on the right-wing panel of the monument) to support their theories about the end of the world. So not only is Monument 6 the only monument found so far, it is also incomplete since parts of it are missing and the believers only use part of an inscription that is subject of debate as to how it should be translated and what it actually really means, even under Maya experts who spend decades researching the glyphs! As explained above, the most recent interpretation states that Monument 6 does not even mention a prophecy. It is also obvious that Maya experts have a more authoritative claim than new-age writers.

Picture 2: The final glyphs of Monument 6, only a fragment of the whole Monument


Third, the Maya in several cities did occasionally use dates on inscriptions to mark future events. Some of these events would even occur far beyond the end of the 13th Bak’tun. Most of these are in the form of distance dates: Long Count dates given together with an additional number, known as a Distance Number, which added together make a future date. In the city of Palenque in southern Mexico, a section of text referring to the coronation of ruler Pakal mentions October 21st 4772 or more than 4.000 years later, as a data ‘to be remembered’! So if ‘the Maya’ predicted the end of the world or some sort of apocalypse on December 21, 2012, why would they bother registering even later dates?

Finally, it is Western and not Maya civilization that believes in the millenarian idea, the apocalypse, the second coming of Christ etc… When Maya culture was at its peak during the Classic Period (250 – 900), people in Europe cultivated millenarian ideas such as chiliasm from the Greek ‘thousand’, the specifically Christian version of these millenarian ideas, originating from the Book of Revelations. When Spanish Dominicans started their mission of converting the Indians, they introduced these notions to the local population or integrated useful parts of the Popul Vuh (= a collection of mythological and historical narratives, including a creation myth, passed on orally until written down in post-conquest times) to their compelling story of Christian conception to make it relevant – another example of syncretism if you will, just as missionaries had done centuries before with Germanic tribes. Christian concepts such as the second coming were appropriated by the Maya, resulting into narratives by Maya scribes in the early colonial period and since these narratives are among the few sources we have – most Maya effigies and codices were burned – they subsequently became viewed as entirely ‘Maya’ and erroneously used as basis for present-day interpretations.

In this 2012 mythology, the believers project Western ideas from the Middle ages or from Christianity onto Maya who never adhered to this religious belief. The Maya, for instance, never saw time as linear like Europeans did, for them time was and remains cyclical, they were fascinated with re-creation which was prominent in their myths and ceremonies (see the 365-day solar calendar, the Popul Vuh, restarting the time to zero after reaching the 13th Bak’tun…). So even if they had ‘predicted’ a cataclysmic event, it should have been viewed as the ending of one period of time or Bak’tun, but also as the beginning of another one.

Conclusion & why this belief?

It should be clear by now that the whole 2012 ‘mythology’ is based on all but a bad or no interpretation at all of Maya civilization by non-scholars or amateurs and that this ‘prophecy’ comes down to nothing more than fiction. A very profitable form of fiction however, since so many books have been written about this phenomenon and given the ‘deadline’ of December 21, 2012, the sense of urgency is only increasing. As with other ‘prophecies’ and ‘revelations’ (think about the ‘true’ meaning of Egyptian pyramids and ‘lost’ civilizations) this one will fizzle out or will be subject to re-interpretation after 2012 – expect a ‘we got the data wrong, it’s going to happen later’ explanation.

People just want to believe. It is, like errors, what makes us human. The Maya are now but the ‘flavor of the day’ civilization since they seem to fit the pattern of mysterious civilizations foretelling a catastrophic future. That they collapsed or disappeared ‘mysteriously’ only adds to the ‘legend’; after December 2012, believers will probably turn to some other civilization. There are, however, positive developments because of this 2012 Maya-frenzy since more people are now interested and learning about this civilization (provided that they read the right books), thus earning The Maya newfound interest and a place in our collective history, a place they absolutely deserve.

This short article draws heavily on the following sources which I recommend for further reading or for a better understanding of the whole 2012 phenomenon since this article was never meant to be complete or scholarly; it’s purpose was and is to try to explain these Maya ‘prophecies’ in a clear and straightforward way for any interested audience.

Based upon / More info / further reading:

GRONEMEYER, S and MACLEOD, B. “What Could Happen 2012: A Re-Analysis of the 13-Bak’tun Prophecy on Tortuguero Monument 6”. Wayeb Notes Number 34. Available at (Last checked on March 31, 2012)

RESTALL, M. “2012: The new Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse”.

STUART, D. “The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012”.

STUART, D. “What Will Not Happen in 2012”. Maya Decipherment weblog. Available at and (Last checked on March 31, 2012).

VAN STONE, M. 2012 Faq. Available at (Last checked on March 31, 2012).




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