Jan. 3, 2012 -- It sure is a good thing that the Mayan calendar says the world is going to end this year -- because at least, after the apocalypse comes on Dec. 21, you won't have to read another word about it.
Or maybe you will. The beginning of 2012 has brought a new flurry of reassurances that the Maya never did predict anything would go wrong this year, and that even if they had, we're probably misreading their calendar anyhow.
"There's no real prophesy that says this is going to be the end of the world," said Christopher Powell, an archeologist who studies Mayan culture, "not from the Mayan ruins, anyway."
At Yahoo News, writer Lisa Hix quoted Bruce Love of the Archaeological Institute of America: "Whatever the significance of the date is, it is significance we are putting on it; it's not the significance the Maya are putting on it. It's not coming from anywhere in the literature or in the Mayan hieroglyphic writing."
Over at Discovery News, Ian O'Neill, a physicist by training, has written a piece that says, "there's no evidence to suggest the Mayans believed the end of their Long Count calendar would spell doomsday."
The Maya, who lived in Central America between A.D. 250 and 900, had a cyclical calendar that ran approximately one human lifetime, or 52 years (life was shorter back then). To account for events more than 52 years away, they devised another calendar, one that ran 5,126 years, and apparently began in the year 3114 B.C. Do a little math: 5,126 minus 3,114 equals 2,012.
"I believe the Mayan calendar was based on some incredibly good astronomy, said Lawrence Joseph, author of "Apocalypse 2012." "They were really good at knowing when. They weren't so good at saying what's going to happen then." Joseph said he worries about an outbreak of solar flares in December, enough to fry the world's electric grid.
But does any Mayan calendar really predict anything will happen? Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History said, "Western messianic thought has twisted the cosmovision of ancient civilizations like the Maya." It said the Maya believed that time started and ended with regularity, with nothing apocalyptic occurring at the end.
O'Neill blames the viral marketing campaign in 2009 that promoted the Roland Emmerich disaster movie "2012." The film got mediocre reviews but sold a lot of DVDs. And social scientists say the mythology of a doomsday prophecy fits an old pattern: When times are tough, it's almost comforting for people to blame higher unseen powers.
"It's almost like you're out there looking for evidence of a looming apocalypse," said anthropologist Wade Davis, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, "and I think it also ties into a lot of uncertainty that exists in our world today."
This does promise to be a heck of a year, with a still-shaky global economy, a stubbornly high unemployment rate and a presidential election. The scientists say we can take stock on Dec. 22.
"I can think of a lot of reasons to cash out and run away with your family these days to a desert island," said Davis, "but this Mayan prophesy isn't one of them."