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 Hoopes, Kevin 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 Maxwell, Quetzil 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.