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2012 and All That 

Was that Dec. 21 or 22? Author checking 1,200 year-old Mayan stela at Calakmul, southern Mexico, for exactly when the world will end.
  • Was that Dec. 21 or 22? Author checking 1,200 year-old Mayan stela at Calakmul, southern Mexico, for exactly when the world will end.

Dec. 21, 2012, marks a happy coincidence of the winter solstice with a notable turning of the Mayan calendar. The "long count" calendar, used from approximately 200 to 900 A.D., can be found represented on literally hundreds of Mayan stelae in Mexico and Central America. It's a remarkable system for designating the exact date by counting the number of days from the start of their calendar -- Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. by our calendar is their Day Zero.

The Mayan word for a day is k'in.

20 k'ins = 1 winal

18 winals = 1 tun

20 tuns = 1 k'atun

20 k'atuns = 1 b'ak'tun (or pik). That is 140,000 days, or about 394 years.

If you're reading this on Aug. 20, 2009, that's Mayan day (12 b'ak'tuns + 19 k'atuns + 15 tuns + 11 winals + 1 k'in).

Why, you may wonder, didn't they adopt a straight base-20 system, where each place to the left denotes a 20-fold multiplier (analogous to our base-10 system)? Perhaps, one theory goes, the 360-day tun represents 18 months of 20 days followed by an intercalary five-day "month" to approximate an astronomical year.

Winter solstice 2012 falls on Dec. 21, which coincidentally marks the completion of the current 144,000-day b'ak'tun cycle, that is, exactly 13 b'ak'tuns (1,872,000 days) since the start of the Mayan calendar some 5,000 years ago. The following day,, starts the new b'ak'tun.

You may have heard about 2012 not as a celebratory date, but as a prediction for the end of the world (again). The 2012 movie is coming out at the end of this year, hard on the heels of the first crop of 2012 disaster books. Let's face it, we're more likely to buy books and movie tickets for an upcoming catastrophe than for a happy event. Seriously, if we can survive the Cold War and Dick Cheney, 2012 should be a breeze.

Me, I'm more worried about the U.S. Census Bureau's prediction that the world population will hit seven billion in 2012 ... perhaps (ominous music) on Dec. 21?

Barry Evans ( is stocking up on Power Bars and tequila, just in case. He lives in Old Town Eureka.

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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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