by John Major Jenkins¾ May 23rd, 1994
Originally published in the Dec-Jan ’95 issue of Mountain Astrologer.
Why did the ancient Mayan or pre-Maya choose December 21st, 2012 A.D., as the end of their Long Count calendar? This article will cover some recent research. Scholars have known for decades that the 13-baktun cycle of the Mayan “Long Count” system of timekeeping was set to end precisely on a winter solstice, and that this system was put in place some 2300 years ago. This amazing fact – that ancient Mesoameri- can skywatchers were able to pinpoint a winter solstice far off into the future – has not been dealt with by Mayanists. And why did they choose the year 2012? One immediately gets the impression that there is a very strange mystery to be confronted here. I will be building upon a clue to this mystery reported by epigrapher Linda Schele in Maya Cosmos (1994). This article is the natural culmination of the research relating to the Mayan Long Count and the precession of the equinoxes that I explored in my recent book Tzolkin: Visionary Perspectives and Calendar Studies (Borderlands Science and Research Foundation, 1994).
The Mayan Long Count
Just some basics to get us started. The Maya were adept skywatchers. Their Classic Period is thought to have lasted from 200 A.D. to 900 A.D., but recent archeological findings are pushing back the dawn of Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica. Large ruin sites indicating high culture with distinctly Mayan antecedents are being found in the jungles of Guatemala dating back to before the common era. And even before this, the Olmec civilization flourished and developed the sacred count of 260 days known as the tzolkin. The early Maya adopted two different time keeping systems, the “Short Count” and the Long Count. The Short Count derives from combining the tzolkin cycle with the solar year and the Venus cycle of 584 days. In this way, “short” periods of 13, 52 and 104 years are generated. Unfortunately, we won’t have occasion to dwell on the properties of the so-called Short Count system here. The Long Count system is somewhat more abstract, yet is also related to certain astronomical cycles. It is based upon nested cycles of days multiplied at each level by that key Mayan number, twenty:
Number of Days / Term
1 / Kin (day)
20 / Uinal
360 / Tun
7200 / Katun
144000 / Baktun
Notice that the only exception to multiplying by twenty is at the tun level, where the uinal period is instead multiplied by 18 to make the 360-day tun. The Maya employed this counting system to track an unbroken sequence of days from the time it was inaugurated. The Mayan scholar Munro Edmonson believes that the Long Count was put in place around 355 B.C. This may be so, but the oldest Long Count date as yet found corresponds to 32 B.C. We find Long Count dates in the archeological record beginning with the baktun place value and separated by dots. For example: 126.96.36.199.0 equals 6 baktuns, 19 katuns, 19 tuns, 0 uinals and 0 days. Each baktun has 144000 days, each katun has 7200 days, and so on. If we add up all the values we find that 188.8.131.52.0 indicates a total of 1007640 days have elapsed since the Zero Date of 0.0.0.0.0. The much discussed 13-baktun cycle is completed 1872000 days (13 baktuns) after 0.0.0.0.0. This period of time is the so called Mayan “Great Cycle” of the Long Count and equals 5125.36 years.
But how are we to relate this to a time frame we can understand? How does this Long Count relate to our Gregorian calendar? This problem of correlating Mayan time with “western” time has occupied Mayan scholars since the beginning. The standard question to answer became: what does 0.0.0.0.0 (the Long Count “beginning” point) equal in the Gregorian calendar? When this question is answered, archeological inscriptions can be put into their proper historical context and the end date of the 13-baktun cycle can be calculated. After years of considering data from varied fields such as astronomy, ethnography, archeology and iconography, J. Eric S. Thompson determined that 0.0.0.0.0 correponded to the Julian date 584283, which equals August 11th, 3114 B.C. in our Gregorian calendar. This means that the end date of 184.108.40.206.0, some 5125 years later, is December 21st, 2012 A.D.1
The relationship between the Long Count and Short Count has always been internally consistent (both were tracked alongside each other in an unbroken sequence since their conception). Now it is very interesting to note that an aspect of the “Short Count”, namely, the sacred tzolkin count of 260 days, is still being followed in the highlands of Guatemala. As the Mayan scholar Munro Edmonson shows in The Book of the Year, this last surviving flicker of a calendar tradition some 3000 years old supports the Thompson correlation of 584283. Edmonson also states that the Long Count was begun by the Maya or pre-Maya around 355 B.C., but there is reason to believe that the Long Count system was being perfected for at least 200 years prior to that date.
The point of interest for these early astronomers seems to have been the projected end date in 2012 A.D., rather than the beginning date in 3114 B.C. Having determined the end date in 2012 (for reasons we will come to shortly), and calling it 220.127.116.11.0, they thus proclaimed themselves to be living in the 6th baktun of the Great Cycle. The later Maya certainly attributed much mythological significance to the beginning date, relating it to the birth of their deities, but it now seems certain that the placement of the Long Count hinges upon its calculated end point. Why did early Mesoamerican skywatchers pick a date some 2300 years into the future and, in fact, how did they pinpoint an accurate winter solstice? With all these considerations one begins to suspect that, for some reason, the ancient New World astronomers were tracking precession.
Continue reading (not so important but very detailed but complex though): http://www.december212012.com/articles/mayan/4.shtml