If the world doesn't end Friday, John Hoopes says, please don't blame the Mayan civilization.
Whatever you've heard or will hear in the run-up to a date that's been assigned special significance — Dec. 21, 2012 — it's just not true that the Mayas predicted that the apocalypse would happen on that day, the Kansas University archaeologist says.
"Hopefully they won't be angry and resentful and feel like it was the Mayas who pulled this big trick on everybody," Hoopes said of anyone who's bought into the doomsday frenzy. "Because it wasn't."
Hoopes, an associate professor of anthropology at KU, has spent nearly a decade studying the "2012 phenomenon," the belief that some sort of global transformative event — be it the end of the world, the arrival of extraterrestrials or something else — would occur on Dec. 21 of this year.
While that belief is often associated with a supposed prophecy made by the Mayas, the people who really deserve credit are countercultural groups and New Age adherents in the United States from the 1970s to today — as well as the Web, Hollywood movies, media outlets and other cultural forces that have helped the idea to flourish.
At this point, the 2012 phenomenon is a worldwide "viral meme," Hoopes says. But he has seized an opportunity to try to educate people about the ancient civilizations, including the Mayas, that have long fascinated him.
"It started out really small and really obscure, and then it became something that everybody knew about," Hoopes said in a phone interview as he prepared to travel to Helsinki for a conference of Mayan scholars in advance of the big day this week.
It certainly true, he says, that Friday would mark a significant date in the Long Count calendar that the Mayas used, according to modern interpretations. But it does not mark the "end" of the calendar.
"This is another myth," Hoopes said. "The calendar doesn't end."
It does mark the end of the calendar's 13th b'ak'tun (pronounced "bok-toon") — a unit of time roughly 394 years long. And the number 13 held special significance to the Mayas, figuring heavily in their calendar and system of math.
"They would still probably be celebrating it, and would probably assign a lot of importance to it," Hoopes said.
But that would only be the case if the Mayas had not stopped using the Long Count calendar about 1,000 years ago, long before the Spanish conquest of the civilization's area in modern-day Mexico and Central America in the 16th Century.
It had essentially disappeared until Western scholars discovered it in the 19th century.
And it wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that a couple of scholars first linked the end of the 13th b'ak'tun with the idea of destruction or, as one Yale archaelogist wrote in 1966, "armageddon." (He, however, misinterpreted the calendar, estimating the fateful date to be last Dec. 24.)
"That did get the ball rolling, so to speak," Hoopes said.
Hoopes and other scholars now say, however, that the Mayas made no such prediction. Mentions of apocalyptic scenarios by the Mayas were made after the Spanish conquest, and they were probably made by converted Christians referring to the New Testament Book of Revelation, or perhaps even referring to the Spanish conquest itself retroactively.
"There were no prophecies of a coming end of the world by the Mayas before the arrival of the Spanish," Hoopes said.
But by the 1970s, New Age and countercultural groups had begun pulling from scholarly work evidence of a supposed prophecy of destruction, picking and choosing pieces that fit the theory.
"One of the things I say, kind of tongue-in-cheek, is if it seems like this mythology was thought up by people on drugs, it's because it was," Hoopes said.
The 12/21/12 date was first linked to the end of the 13th b'ak'tun in an archaeologist's book in 1983, and it was popularized amidst the New Age Harmonic Convergence event in 1987. Its convergence with the winter solstice and a peculiar astrological alignment caused it to draw more notice.
Personal computers allowed adherents to publish their own texts about the 2012 phenomenon, and the emergence of the World Wide Web in the 1990s fueled it further. Fears of Y2K doomsday scenarios stoked the fire.
Mel Gibson's 2006 movie "Apocalypto" heightened interest in the Mayan civilization, and the 2009 disaster film "2012" turned the apocalypse theory into a full-blown cultural force.
"It's kind of a weird thing: a very obscure calendar of one of the world's many cultures," Hoopes said, "and it's become a global phenomenon."
Though that phenomenon has been linked to misperceptions and myths of the Mayas, Hoopes has tried to use the hype as an opportunity to educate, commenting on the subject in The New York Times, USA Today, numerous TV shows and other media outlets. He's published academic articles on the subject and served as an author and editor for the "2012 phenomenon" article on Wikipedia. (The article, which he says is perhaps the best source on the subject, will be Wikipedia's featured article on Dec. 20.)
After he returns from his conference in Helsinki, he'll be joining other archaeologists at Chichen Itza, perhaps the best-known Mayan city, in Mexico, where a music festival and other celebrations will mark the occasion.
"I saw this as an opportunity to teach about ancient indigenous cultures of the Americas," Hoopes said.
But what his studies on the subject have taught him about most, he says, is not the Mayan civilization but modern-day American culture, and how its various sects, forces and media can take an idea to unimagined places.
"If you want to study a weird, exotic culture, you don't have to travel across the world or into the jungles of Central America," Hoopes said. "It's right here around us."