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A short history of the end of the world



There are doubtless many people who, faced with the prospect of relatives arriving for Christmas, are hoping that the Mayan calendar is right and that the world will end on Friday.
What is more worrying is how many people actually believe this. They include people who use computers and travel in aeroplanes, but who remain credulous about a supposed prophecy left by a Mayan ruler predicting the end of the world in 2012.

The believers divide into two camps: Those who think that the earth is about to be destroyed, and those who believe that 21 December marks the end of one major time cycle and the beginning of a new and better one. Tens of thousands of these latter, the optimists, are travelling to Mexico to take part in celebrations. Canny tourism operators there and in Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have taken a cue from the ancient monument in Tortuguero on which the ambiguous prophecy is inscribed, and have been promoting the date vigorously, with planned festivities including concerts and fireworks.

Elsewhere, some folk are hedging their bets and others are cashing in on them.
In Boston, Massachusetts, "Preppers" are stockpiling food and sharing survival tips on their website meet-up page, discussing how to cope with a major earthquake, tsunami, plague or
global war.

In France, authorities have closed a route to a mountain in the Pyranees which has been singled out as a place to which people can flee when the disaster strikes, because they do not want crowds gathering there in advance of the date.

The equal and opposite reaction to this swirl of expectation is the annoyed response of Central Americans who deplore the trivialisation of Mayan culture, and the weary debunking that the science community has to do, in response to the fact that some of the credulous are frightened and need reassurance.

Earlier this year, a Boston University archaeology team led by Professor William Saturno (alas; a name the credulous will find ominous) discovered the oldest Mayan calendar yet found. It showed that the last time the universe's great time cycle was reset was in August 3114 BC.

The Mayans calculated the great cycles of universal time as lasting 1,872,000 days. The Tortuguero monument inscription is interpreted by some to mean that the current time cycle will end after "13 baktuns" – roughly 5,000 years from its start date – which gives 2012 as the final year.

In an effort to reassure, Professor Saturno informs us that the calendar actually says "17 Baktuns", which gives us another 2,000 years.

The United States space agency Nasa released its post-21 December "told you so" video on 11 December, entitled Why The World Didn't End Yesterday. They have solid inductive grounds for this, because the end of the world has been wrongly predicted very many times.

The Romans thought their world would end in 389 BC because 12 eagles had flown over Romulus's head at the founding of the city, portending a lifetime of 120 years. In various forms, the Roman world lasted about 2,000 years. The early Christians thought the world was going to end any minute.

The Essenes thought the world would end in AD 70 when the Romans crushed their revolt. The Montanists of the second century AD believed that they were the last generation.


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