Stop freaking out: World won’t end in 2012, expert says

Will the world end in December 2012? Don’t bet on it, experts say. Or at least, if it does, don’t blame the Maya.

Quetzil E. Castañeda, an expert on Maya people and an ethnologist at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, attempted to quell fears surrounding the “Mayan phenomenon,” which has many people saying the ancient civilization predicted end days with its calendar that supposedly stops on Dec. 21 or Dec. 23 (even that’s in dispute, he said) of this year.

Castañeda spoke Thursday evening at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt., to a crowd of about 50 with interests ranging from Latin American history to New Age spirituality.

Dispelling the misinformation began with an explanation that “anyone who says they know something about the Mayan prophecies is wrong,” Castañeda said. “For one thing, ‘Mayan’ isn’t a word.”

The correct adjective and noun is ‘Maya’ and that refers to an ethnically and geographically diverse group of indigenous peoples in the Yucatán Peninsula and elsewhere in Mexico. And yes, their descendents still live there. And no, they’re not Aztecs, though many popular culture references relating to the “Maya 2012 gurus,” as Castañeda called those drumming up end-of-the-world concern, confuse elements of Maya and Aztec culture and symbolism — and even the all-important doomsday calendar.

About that calendar. Castañeda said reading into its end in 2012 is paramount to “freaking out” at seeing the end of a yardstick. Space doesn’t end just because its measuring tool does; instead, to measure something bigger than a yard, we just move the stick farther along. So while the ancient Maya calendar does have 520-year cycles, there’s no evidence even they thought this “end” was anything parallel to the Judeo-Christian notion of apocalypse. But still, spiritualists pander to tourists in the area, touting crystals and teaching that dates of equinox have significance, though few local Maya put any faith into the ideas (most are Catholic), Castañeda showed in a film he made at the ancient Maya ruins of Chichen Itza.

John Hoopes, an associate professor in Kansas University’s anthropology department, introduced Castañeda with the idea that the 2012 pop-culture phenomenon at least provided the opportunity for a “yearlong teaching moment” for people to learn more about Mesoamerican history and culture, including the complexities of how the “gurus” affect the real, everyday lives of the Maya people.

“Westerners have created the construct of the mystery of the Maya,” Castañeda said, because it’s surprising to the European-derived ways of thinking that the Maya would create a civilization in the jungle, “where civilization shouldn’t be,” and then “abandon” it.

But the abandonment, he said, is also a myth; the Maya peoples still exist. They were just colonized by the Spanish.

In the discussion, Hoopes brought up the point that Mexico is said to be expecting some 50 million tourists to the Yucatán this year, with all the Maya 2012 hype.