The End is Nigh. Start blogging.

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Clare A. Sammells.

My thanks to the editors of Savage Minds for allowing me to guest blog this month. Hopefully I will not be among the last of Savage Mind’s guests, given that the End of the World is nigh.

You hadn’t heard? On or around Dec 21, 2012, the Maya Long Count will mark the end of a 5125 year cycle. Will this be a mere a calendrical turn, no more inherently eventful that the transition from Dec 31, 2012 to Jan 1, 2013? Will this be a moment of astronomical alignments, fiery conflagrations, and social upheavals? Or will there be a shift in human consciousness, an opportunity for the prepared to improve their lives and achieve enlightenment?

I am going to bet with the house: I do not think the world is going to end in a few weeks.  That way, either the world doesn’t end — another victory for predictive anthropology! — or the world does end, and nothing I write here will matter much anyway. (More seriously, I don’t think our world is destined to end with a bang).

I am not a Mayanist, an archaeologist, or an astronomer. I won’t be discussing conflicting interpretations of Maya long count dates, astronomical observations, or Classical-era Maya stela inscriptions. Books by David Stuart, Anthony Aveni, and Matthew Restall and Amara Solari all provide detailed arguments using those data, and analyze the current phenomenon in light of the long history of western fascinations with End Times.  Articles by John HoopesKevin Whitesides, and Robert Sitler, among others, address “New Age” interpretations of the Maya.  Many ethnographers have considered how Maya peoples understand their complex interactions with “New Age” spiritualists and tourists, among them Judith MaxwellQuetzil Casteneda and Walter Little.

My own interest lies in how indigenous timekeeping is interpreted in the Andes. I conducted ethnographic research focusing on tourism in Tiwanaku, Bolivia — a pre-Incan archaeological site near Lake Titicaca, and a contemporary Aymara village.  One of the first things I noticed was that every tour guide tells visitors about multiple calendars inscribed in the stones of the site, most famously in the Puerta del Sol.  These calendrical interpretations are meaningful to Bolivian visitors, foreign tourists, and local Tiwanakenos for understanding the histories, ethnicities, and politics centered in this place. I took a stab at addressing some of these ideas in a recent article, where I considered how interconnected archaeological theories and political projects of the 1930s fed into what is today accepted conventional knowledge about Tiwanakota calendars.  I’m now putting together a book manuscript about temporal intersections in Tiwanaku.  The parallels between that situation and the Maya 2012 Phenomena led me to consider the prophecies, expectations, YouTube videos, blog posts, scholarly debunkings, and tourist travels motivated by the end of the Maya Long Count.

A survey by the National Geographic Channel suggested that 27% of those in the United States think the Maya may have predicted a catastrophe for December 21.  But it is important to note that there is no agreement, even among believers, about what will happen. I tend to think of these beliefs as collecting into two broad (and often overlapping) camps.

Many believe that “something” will happen on (or around) Dec 21, 2012, but do not anticipate world destruction. I think of these beliefs as “Transitional Apocalyptic Expectations” (TAE). Writers such as José Argüelles and John Major Jenkins, for example, believe that there will be a shift in human consciousness, and tend to view the end of the 13th baktun as an opportunity for human improvement.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that the world will end abruptly, in fire, flood, cosmic radiation, or collision with other planets. I think of these beliefs as “Catastrophic Apocalyptic Expectations” (CAE).  While some share my belief that the numbers of serious CAE-ers is small, there are panics and survivalists reported by the press in Russia, France, and Los Angeles.  Tragically, there has been at least one suicide.  And of course, there has been a major Hollywood movie (“2012″), which I’ll be discussing more in my next post.

As anthropologists, we certainly should respond to public fears.  But we should also wonder why this fear, out of so many possible fears, is the one to capture public imagination.  Beliefs in paranormal activities, astrology, and the like are historically common, although the specifics change over time.  Michael D. Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012) convincingly suggests that there are larger societal reasons why some fringe theories attract scholarly and public attention while others go ignored.  The Mayan Apocalypse has certainly attracted massive attention, from scholarly rebuttals from anthropologists, NASA, and others, to numerous popular parodies such as GQ’s survival tips, LOLcats, and my personal favorite, an advertisement for Mystic Mayan Power Cloaks.

There seems to be a general fascination with the Mayan calendar — even among those who know relatively little about the peoples that label refers to.  Some are anxiously watching the calendar count down, others are trying to reassure them, and many more simply watching, cracking jokes, or even selling supplies.  But there is something interesting about the fact that so many in the United States and Europe are talking about it at all.  I look forward to exploring these questions further with all of you.

Clare A. Sammells is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bucknell University. She has conducted research on archaeological tourism in Tiwanaku, Bolivia and on foodways among Bolivian migrants living in Madrid, Spain.

17 thoughts on “The End is Nigh. Start blogging.

  1. “Many believe that “something” will happen on (or around) Dec 21, 2012, but do not anticipate world destruction. I think of these beliefs as “Transitional Apocalyptic Expectations” (TAE).”

    Ya, this sums up a lot of the answers I have heard. They tend to be pretty vague oftentimes. Something is going to happen, but not sure what. Thanks for the post–I am looking forward to the [re]st of your series!

  2. Personally, I do not think that it is especially odd that so many people around the world are obsessed with the so-called Mayan Prophecy. After all, this is the age of the Internet. Word travels very fast these days. Add to this the fact that the media (especially, in my opinion, the US media) loves to scare the living daylights out of people, and it is no wonder that so many (gullible) people are convinced that the world is going to end on 21 December.

    Just look at the recent increase in the number of so-called ‘preppers’ (especially in the USA). There is even a TV series devoted to their efforts while, a few clicks of the remote control away, you will find programmes dedicated to the Mayan Doomsday Prophecies, the ‘imminent’ eruption of Yellowstone Park (any time between right now and the next 10,000 years), and the apparent mysterious goings-on at Area 51 (to name but a few). These have been broadcast repeatedly (on a daily basis) for many months (possibly years).

    I recently read an article by the American consumer reporter and investigative journalist John Stossel, author of “Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel — Why Everything You Know is Wrong”. The article is entitled “The Media Likes Scaring Us, and We Like It”. His opening lines are as follows: “I’m embarrassed by my profession. We consumer reporters should warn you about life’s important risks, but instead, we mislead you about dubious risks”.

    As we all know, although Wikipedia contains a wealth of information, it should never be cited as an academic source. In this one case, however, I am going to include a Wikipedia link because the photo – part of the Dresden Codex – is genuine: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Dresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg

    For those of you who do not know, the Dresden Codex is an 11th or 12th century pre-Columbian Maya book that is thought to be a copy of a much older text (probably about four hundred years older). The book consists of 39 sheets (or pages) which are inscribed on both sides and have an overall length of just over 3.50 metres.

    One of the pages depicts a crocodile with a torrent of water flowing out of its mouth. In fact, torrential water seems to play a major role in the picture ((http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Dresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg). This one piece of art work – which is open to many interpretations – is apparently the main reason (besides the actual calender itself) why so many people are convinced that the world is going to end on 21 December!

    Creationists contend that both the earth and humans came into existence during the same week and that there is ample evidence in the Bible to prove that humans have been in existence only several thousand years (and not millions, as evolutionists claim).

    Is it any wonder, therefore, that an ancient painting of a crocodile spewing water could make many thousands (if not millions) of people believe that the end is nigh – even in this day and age?

    Let’s hope that the ‘preppers’ don’t have the last laugh in three weeks’ time … even if one day they actually will!

  3. Ryan – Thank you for the link! I’ll update the post to include it.

    Paul – thank you for the information about the Dresden Codex and the beautiful image. I agree there is a general fascination in the United States, and especially in the media, with end-of-world scenarios, survivalism, etc. Another example of this is zombie fiction, which is also a fascination of mine.

    I think you’ve brought up some important points, and I want to push these further. The first is about the internet. Millennial and apocalyptic movements appeared in various historical moments before the internet, of course, but I agree that there is something different about how this is playing out now given this technology. The internet does allow ideas to potentially move quickly and between larger and wider audiences. At the same time, there is a lot of material on the web that goes almost completely ignored, or only circulates within very limited circles. So while the internet is a condition of possibility for the Mayan Apocalypse phenomenon in its current form, we are still left with the question of why this idea, rather than some other alternative idea, has gained so much attention.

    The second is about gullibility. I don’t like that term for this context, to be honest. But leaving semantics aside, the argument I really want to make is that even “gullibility” is culturally specific. Those who fear a potential upcoming apocalypse are not necessarily easy to convince that, say, the earth is flat. But the idea of the Mayan apocalypse clearly appeals to many, either because they believe it or because they want to discredit it, and I think one of the questions we should ask is why.

  4. Thanks, Clare. This was great.

    I agree largely with your response to Paul. It seems to me that, in addition to the Mayan prophesies resonating with a cultural zeitgeist or being spread by new technologies, your post and Paul’s comments points to ways apocalypse fears and apocalypse parodies are easily turned into commodities. Movies, reality shows about preppers, and who knows what arrays of products sold to preppers. A good part of the hub bub could be the generative effect of entertainment products that both satisfy and produce consumer demand for apocalypse.

    Your post also made me think about the relation between apocalyptic fantasies and the quotidian anxiety of economic crisis. Apocalypse is (figuratively) the crisis of crises.

    Can’t wait for the next post.

  5. Your post also made me think about the relation between apocalyptic fantasies and the quotidian anxiety of economic crisis. Apocalypse is (figuratively) the crisis of crises.

    It is also, of course, a marvelous distraction, making it possible to ignore lesser but potentially solvable problems. It’s right up there with war, pestilence, evil others and gladiatorial games as a proven way to keep the masses from paying attention to the nitty gritty of political and economic transactions.

  6. Jay, I totally agree. It would be fascinating to do a more complete study of this industry of survivalism and “preppers” that you and Paul have brought up – what exactly are they selling/buying? How much money is in this business? It is suggestive that in the survey I mentioned, almost 47% of people asked thought a bunker would be a better investment than a 401K. Certainly in our moment of financial uncertainty, “traditional” investments look less appealing and other ways of meeting crisis become more so.

    Also interesting is the use of government warnings by this industry. For example, one website selling survival gear has embedded a video from ready.gov. So while governmental officials (NASA, etc) are trying to convince people that nothing will happen, they are using government materials to add legitimacy to their claims that one should be ready for 2012. Luckily, they sell everything we need…

  7. Is there any actual evidence that anything in the Tiwanaku civilisation functioned as a calendar, beyond Posnansky’s speculations? I’m just curious. Posnansky did, after all, claim that the Tiwanaku sites were from the Pleistocene.

  8. Ready.gov raises a whole different doomsday scenario: scaring the population about the war on terror, the methods for which come straight from Cold War nuclear fear mongering. So apocalypse, economic collapse, mushroom cloud–no wonder people are tense.

  9. Al — I address your question more completely in my article that I linked to, but in short: I have yet to see any compelling evidence of something we might call “written calendars” in the Tiwanaku site. That’s not to say it’s impossible, just that I’m not convinced. That’s why this wide-spread idea among tour guides and local residents caught my attention as it did.

    The ancient Tiwanakota certainly did have sophisticated ways of marking and understanding time, and parts of the archaeological site do appear to mark solar phenomena (equinoxes, solstices, and possibly stellar alignments), but to my mind those are different, if related, issues.

    Posnansky (a self-trained archaeologist working at Tiwanaku in the early 20th century) had many theories which today would be seen as “unconventional” at best (and at worst, crackpot or racist), but this particular idea has had staying power for reasons that I suspect Posnansky himself could not have foreseen, and have little to do with him.

  10. I’d be willing to call his ideas ‘crackpot’. His claim that Tiwanaku sites are dateable to c. 12,000 BCE or so on the basis of solar alignments has, as I’m sure you know, caught on among the very same people claiming that the world will end in a couple of weeks’ time. ‘Pumapunku’ is now a central part of the ancient-alien-conspiracy-theory-2012-er lexicon. I had no idea there were any genuine alignments, though.

    I found a cool tool for converting Gregorian dates into the Mayan Long Count and vice versa on the ancientscripts page on Mayan writing. Pretty neat. Of course, it gives no indication whatsoever that anything will happen on the 21st, other than the beginning of a new baktun.

  11. I should point out that most preppers featured on the show aren’t talking about the Mayan prediction. I’m not sure if any of them are, but I’ve only watched a handful of episodes. So, including the prepper movement (in the comment, not in Clare’s original post) doesn’t really apply. There are plenty of disasters that could happen without the world ending! (And if the world does end, a stockpile of food won’t help!)

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