Happy New B’ak’tun!

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Source: Flickr

Today is the last day, or k’in, of the 13th b’ak’tun in the Mayan Long Count Calendar. Tomorrow, the calendar will tick over into the next b’ak’tun, and signal the beginning of the 14th major cycle of the calendar since its baseline date of 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk’u, also known as August 11, 3114 BC. And let me say it is a honour to be able to be alive to experience this occasion, which only comes about approximately once every 394 years.

Today will not bring about the end of the world, however. This 2012 doomsday conspiracy derived from a misinterpretation of the Mayan Long Count Calendar which was exploited by many media and entertainment outlets that have tried to rouse curiosity and interest (and perhaps even anxiety, given by this account) to increase audience levels. The best example of this comes with the History Channel, which is running a special apocalypse countdown today and has been criticised for broadcasting pseudo-scientific and pseudo-historical documentaries on aliens, Nostradamus and other superstitions, presented more as sensationalist beat-ups of predictions and theories rather than the objective historical observations they were supposed to be.

But I’ve also found it extremely ironic that the cynics who have been trying to criticise the ignorance of certain people who believed in the so-called Mayan doomsday prophecies, have been doing so by pointing to the logical flaws of said prophecies, when in actual fact there were no prophecies to begin with. Social media have been utilised to broadcast sardonic jests about how the end of the world hasn’t come, with many saying the Mayans’ prediction was wrong (just check out the trending Twitter hashtags, #Mayans or #endoftheworld, to see this for yourself). In actual fact, what ended up being wrong was the way Westerners used a misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar as proof to substantiate their own paranoias and fears about the way the world seems to be descending into chaos, with Western media and other cynics inflating the problem by giving it a platform in mainstream culture.

The reality of the situation is that the advancement from one b’ak’tun to the next is a huge chronological landmark for people in Mesoamerican cultures, just as the arrival of the Year 2000 was for people in the West. It was a cultural convention for those people which has been taken and abused by Westerners, ranging from new-age thinkers to doomsday cultists, to validate their own agendas. But the people, including myself of course, who have been laughing at these people (and also at the Mayans by extension) didn’t need to point out the obvious logical flaws in their conspiracy theories; all they had to do was go look to the descendants of the Mayans, the indigenous people of certain South American countries like Guatemala, who will be celebrating the chronological milestone in their traditional way, while foreigners come to their country to make a holiday out of the situation. They aren’t saying it’s the end of the world; there just celebrating the arrival of a new b’ak’tun, like we in the West would celebrate that of a new century, or millennium.

People are trying to show how dumb or stubborn people can be in sheepishly falling gullible to the beat up paranoia of doomsday conspiracy theories. But while I think this in itself betrays a more intricate reality of the human condition, the thing I find amazing is the high level of human intelligence that went into creating this elaborate calendar, and all of the scientific and mathematical insight that went into informing it.

A really good summary of how the Long Count Calendar works is offered in this article on NBC News. However, Wikipedia offers this table which provides an easy visualisation:

 

Days

Long Count period

Long Count unit

ApproximateSolar Years

1 ; 1 K’in ;
20 20 K’in 1 Winal ;
360 18 Winal 1 Tun 1
7,200 20 Tun 1 K’atun 20
144,000 20 K’atun 1 B’ak’tun 394
2,880,000 20 B’ak’tun 1 Piktun 7885
57,600,000 20 Piktun 1 Kalabtun 157704
1,152,000,000 20 Kalabtun 1 K’inchiltun 3154071
23,040,000,000 20 K’inchiltun 1 Alautun 63081429

Table courtesy of Wikipedia.

What’s amazing about this is how similar the units used by the Mayans in their Long Count calendar are to our modern, verified chronological systems, with regard to how many days it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun. (In fact, another of the Mayans’ calendars, the Haab’, or secular calendar, lasted 365 days precisely – without factoring in the extra quarter of the day required, though – which implies they were aware of the time it took for the earth to revolve around the sun, but merely rounded the number down to 360 in the long-term calendar to correspond with and fit into the base-20 counting system they were using.)

But anyone can theoretically do this by keeping records of the seasons and through astute astronomical observations (and the Mayans were sophisticated astronomers), although it would prove extremely difficult. What is fascinating is that the Mayans were able to do this ages before other civilisations developed the concepts and technologies rendering it easy. What this shows to me is a basic example of the huge potential what human intelligence can achieve. The human mind is extremely capable of deducing patterns from the world around us and extrapolating them into expansive and highly detailed systems of knowledge, which in turn benefit us by allowing us to build societies and civilisations. The creation of a fully-functioning and cohesive calendar is a perfect way to co-ordinate and structure our behavioural patterns; it is in effect an extremely beneficial behavioural adaptation to allow us to make the best use of our time and the environment around us. How we then make use of these potentials will determine how successful we, as a race, can be.

When people say we will enter a new age, it is because we are literally entering a new stage in the Mayan calendar. So based on this logic, for whoever following the Mayan calendar (and Westerners don’t, of course!), a new age would theoretically result in new behavioural patterns. A way to conceptualise this would be to think of new year’s resolutions. The changing of the year allows people to reflect on their lives and decide what they can improve on in the following years.

In this way, calendars create self-fulfilling prophecies. When the Mayans said the world as they knew it would enter a new age, they were essentially mandating people to consider the presence of change. And they may have actually got their way; they have single-handedly catalysed a huge shift in the way people across the world approached their day today and for some, they have even caused them to believe that a new age is coming and it is time for a new way of life. The thing is, sometimes humans need a helpful prod, or justification, to do things. Religions and mythologies are in this sense helpful meta-narratives to help people to decide how they would like to live (although this can easily be abused of course). Take Christmas, for example; not only is it a time where people feel obliged, or encouraged, to be nice to everyone, it is also a very opportune time for the economy, as it stimulates consumer confidence, even in times of crisis. Christmas is thus an extremely important time for society as a whole. The Mayan calendar, and the mythologies of new ages and cycles it offers, is a perfect example of such a meta-narrative.

So let’s use the knowledge of the Mayans to our advantage and start a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking and interacting with each other. Let’s think about the b’ak’tun we just passed and the cycle we as a civilisation experienced, and learn from it. Beginning in roughly 1618, this past B’ack’tun started off with the Thirty Years War, which resulted in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the treaty which brought about the sovereign state system which now occupies the world and dominates the way societies are organised. The b’ak’tun was characterised by the age of enlightenment, the rapid expansion of empirical enquiry and scientific discovery resulting in the crucial scientific breakthroughs of Newton, Darwin, Einstein and other great thinkers, the genesis of fields of enquiry such as chemistry, physics, genetics and psychology (among others), and the rapid exponential expansion of our knowledge base in all fields. It comprised of  massive technological advancements as a result, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution which catalysed the era of globalisation, bringing everyone in the world closer together through greater communications technologies, transport capabilities and economic and political cooperation. It also allowed for man to venture out into space, setting foot on the moon and beginning to explore outer space, the next frontier in our existential experience. Major political revolutions in America, France and Russia, along with the empowerment of the middle class, women and other minorities as well as the secularisation and modernisation of the Western world, changed the political zeitgeist to one that was more democratic and socially inclusive. And capitalism flourished, completely changing the way society – and its economy – was organised and structured. Thus, it could be characterised by its advancements in rationality, technology and societal and political organisation.

However, it was a b’ak’tun full of crises and problems as well. Slavery and colonialism became a thing of the past, but the decolonisation process left much to be desired in the transition to self-determination of many countries in the developing world. Global inequality is still a majorly unsolved issue and one that doesn’t look like states look overly concerned about. The sovereign state system, paired with the capitalist model, is fraught with problems, which all surfaced at the turn of the twentieth century (in the West’s calendar) when the world descended into chaos with two World Wars, a great economic Depression and the Cold War, all which left a terrifying legacy with the permanent threat of nuclear war. Political extremism became a possible by-product of unchecked democracy. Communism came and went, promising to offer paradise on earth and ending up producing something more resonant with hell, while fascism and nationalism showed the ugly side of splitting people – who are divided by religion, ethnicity and race – up into nation-states. The technological and scientific advancements resulting in the Industrial Revolution and globalisation have proven to generate some problems as well – overpopulation, pollution, unsustainable living patterns and climate change to name a few, along with the political and social conundrums they present. And the global capitalist economy is still a mainspring for all of these issues, continuing to foster political and societal unrest, unsustainable consumption and environmental degradation in its pursuit of growth. Nowadays more than ever before, all our improvements have made us a bigger threat to ourselves.

So there is still a lot of improvement left for us achieve in this new b’ak’tun. Let us take the knowledge and development we achieved in the last one and add a bit more empathy and sensible long-term thinking in this next one to advance our way of life. We are now on the upwards incline of rapid exponential growth in our technologies, scientific advancements and social progression. But we need to learn how to control this to make our world a better place instead of let it take over and destroy what we’ve been so successful at creating and maintaining. Let us revere the ancient civilisations and the marks they left on this world, instead of mock them for their ideas and inventions that we do not understand coming from a world which is completely different to theirs. And let’s take the opportunities provided by globalisation, improved knowledge about ourselves and nature, and our ventures out into space, to start thinking of the human race in a more holistic, global way.

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension… Once let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. And I think this not so distant development may well be for good, as it must increasingly have the effect of exposing nationalistic strife. It is the whole organization of society… The whole spectacle of Earth would very likely appear to an interplanetary traveler as more magnificent than any of the other planets.” Fred Hoyle, 1948

Let’s make it our new b’ak’tun’s resolution.

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