The Mayan civilisation was complex, clever and innovative. But for all their innovation, all their astronomical and mathematical prowess, they were still a stone-age people. Admittedly they could write and record sophisicated mathematical ideas. Their building design was spectacular and for their period, their social structure was complex. But they still practised human sacrifice. They built fine roads. Roads that could rival anything from Rome or even later periods. But they never had any wheeled wagons or carts. They never utilised the wheel.
Because they were clever they invented a sophisticated method of counting. Whereas we use what is know as base ten (i.e. we count 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10) The Mayans used base 20 (i.e. something like 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,10) This will look familiar to anyone who is involved with computing that uses base hex (i.e. as count to 16 - 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,a,b,c,d,e,f,10)
With the Mayan system, you just have to imagine that instead of just counting on their fingers, they took their socks off and used their toes as well.(;-)
Anyway, the Mayans could count. They could also watch the stars. They developed a complex knowledge of astral events, and from these observations, they developed a series of calenders. They used each of these calenders for their own specific purpose. They would also sometimes describe timed events using multiple calendars or a mix of calendars.
The first of the Mayan calenders is known as the Tzolk'in . This is a name given to it by current day Mayanist scholars. What it was really called is something we will probably never know.
The Tzolk'in was a calender that repeated every 260 days. The significance of this period is vague but it could be related to the gestation (pregnancy period) of humans or alternatively the time between sowing a crop and harvesting it. It was the most used calender and is still used by some of the central American peoples to this day. These existing communities give the calender two names. These are Aj Ilabal Q’ij (the sense of the day) and Chol Q'ij, (the organization of time).
The 260 day Tzolk'in is divided into 13 x 20 day periods where each of these days has a name. Then each of the 13 groups have a name as well. This is a bit like like having 13 (short) months, each with its own name. Each of these months consists of 20 days. Each day having its own name.
The next Mayan calender is the Haab. We all know the Mayans were a clever people. They fully understood that a solar year consisted of 365 days. The Haab was their equivalent of our normal 365 day year. It looks like the Maya, after discovering that a year had 365 days, unsurprisingly tried to fit that into their numbering system. So in a Haab calender there are 18 (short) months each consisting of 20 days. This leaves 5 days unaccounted for. These were called the Wayeb (or nameless days) These were tacked on at the end of the year.
Why did they do this? Remember they may have been a clever people but they were working these things out for the first time. Old established knowledge could not be overturned easily, but only built on. For similar inconvenient reasons the British ended up with a monetary system with 12 Pennies in a Shilling and 20 Shillings in a Pound (21 in a Guinea!). That system survived until 40 years ago and was in world-wide use!
The Calender Round
The Mayans then mixed the two calendars by multiplying them together to get what is known as the Calender Round. A Calender Round is where the Tzolk'in and the Haab synchronise. This happens every 73 Tzolk'in's or every 52 Haabs.
Both of these calendar systems are still in use today in remote parts of Central America, as is the Calender Round.
The Long Count
But there was still yet another calender. The (now) infamous Long Count. Like most civilisations (our own included) we have a start date or reference date for that civilisation. With most of the Western world that is the birth of Christ. Other cultures use other important events as a starting point. The Maya were no different. Their start date was the mythological Mayan creation date, which on our calender is approximately 3114 BC.
Of course the Mayans used their own base 20 mathematics in this calender. As it had a clear start date, this Long Count calender could reference any date in the past and any date in the future. The Mayan Long Count gave a date by positional notation. All this means is that it used a system like we use for specifying a date (example in our system we could say 21 December 2012 as 21/12/2012 (English) or 12/21/2012 (USA) or 2012.12.21. The Mayans would display this date in their system as 188.8.131.52.0
Even so the Mayan Long Count had the odd idiosyncrasy that was needed to make it correspond more to natural annual events (like summer, winter etc.) This was mainly confined to making the second position on the calender base 18 rather than 20.
The 13th Bakt'un.
Each of the positional fields in the Mayan Long count had a name. The last or most significant field is known as the Bakt'un field. Each increment of the Bakt'un corresponds to just over 394 years. By comparison, in our Western system the most significant digit corresponds to a thousand years.
So what is the the significance of the 13th bakt'un?
The rather dull answer to that is not much. None other than the fact that if the Mayan civilisation were still going they would be having a big party. The number 13 has no significance. In 394 years time the Long Count calender will roll over to 184.108.40.206 and 394 years after that it will roll over to 220.127.116.11
It is a bit like when in our own calender system the date rolled over from 1999 rolling over to 2000. Lots of people got drunk, but not much happened.
The bottom line is that the Mayans were a clever and resourceful people, but they had no magical secret knowledge, no direct link to celestial beings or hidden gods. As a civilisation they lost their way and then at a low point in their history they were finished off by the Spaniards.
We should perhaps mourn the loss of the Mayan civilisation but only in the same way we should mourn the loss of the Dinosaurs or the Mammoths or the Dodo. They all had their time and they all had their chance. For whatever reason, good or ill, they did not make it.
We can still celebrate the cleverness of the Mayans. Maybe we can learn from their structures and the practical application they made of their knowledge. But sadly people clutch at any dogma, and any potential for disaster. It seems so they can insulate themselves from the modern world. But the arrival of the 13th Bakt'Un should have been a time for celebration not for doom serr'ing
So, we now know, on the 21st December 2012 or 18.104.22.168.0, the world did not end. I hope that you like me raised a glass to the Mayan gods Kukulcan and Ixchel and wished the Mayans - the real living Mayans - the people of Yucatan, a prosperous and happy 13th Bakt'un.