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A newly discovered Mayan text reveals the "end date" for the Maya calendar. But unlike some modern people, ancient Maya did not expect the world to end on that date, researchers said.
"This text talks about ancient political history rather than prophecy," Marcello Canuto, the director of Tulane University Middle America Research Institute, said in a statement. "This new evidence suggests that the 13 bak'tun date was an important calendrical event that would have been celebrated by the ancient Maya; however, they make no apocalyptic prophecies whatsoever regarding the date."
The Maya Long Count calendar is divided into bak'tuns, or 144,000-day cycles that begin at the Maya creation date. The winter solstice of 2012 (Dec. 21) is the last day of the 13th bak'tun, marking what the Maya people would have seen as a full cycle of creation.
Some New Age believers and doomsday types have attributed great meaning to Dec. 21, 2012, with some predicting an apocalypse and others expecting some sort of profound global spiritual event.
The date was made famous by a reference to the 2012 date in an inscription on a monument dating back to around A.D. 669 in Tortuguero, Mexico. (Mexican archaeologists reported finding a second reference to the date last year, carved or molded into a brick at the Comacalco ruins nearby.) [End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]
Now, researchers exploring the Maya ruins of La Corona in Guatemala have unearthed another reference. On a stairway block carved with hieroglyphs, archaeologists found a commemoration of a visit by Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' of Calakmul, the most powerful Mayan ruler in his day. The king, also known as Jaguar Paw, suffered a terrible defeat in battle by the Kingdom of Tikal in 695.
Historians have long assumed that Jaguar Paw died or was captured in this battle. But the carvings proved them wrong. In fact, the king visited La Corona in the year 696, probably trying to shore up loyalty among his subjects in the wake of his defeat four years earlier. [See images of the carvings]
As part of this publicity tour, the king was calling himself the "13 k'atun lord," the carvings reveal. K'atuns are another unit of the Maya calendar, corresponding to 7,200 days or nearly 20 years. Jaguar Paw had presided over the ending of the 13th of these k'atuns in A.D. 692.
That's where the 2012 calendar end date comes in. In an effort to tie himself and his reign to the future, the king linked his reign with another 13th cycle — the 13th bak'tun ending on Dec. 21, 2012.
David Stuart, a professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin, recognized the reference to the date among 56 glyphs that were carved on the stone block. "It was a time of great political turmoil in the Maya region, and this king felt compelled to allude to a larger cycle of time that happens to end in 2012," Stuart said in a statement released by UT.
By referring to a date that seemed far in the future, Jaguar Paw was trying to place his reign and his accomplishments in a larger cosmological framework — in effect, emphasizing a big-picture view to divert attention from his recent troubles.
"What this text shows us is that in times of crisis, the ancient Maya used their calendar to promote continuity and stability rather than predict apocalypse," Canuto said.
La Corona was the site of much looting and has only been explored by modern archaeologists for about 15 years. Canuto and his dig co-director, Tomas Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, announced the discovery of the new calendar text Thursday at the National Palace in Guatemala.
The researchers first uncovered the carved stone steps in 2010 near a building heavily damaged by looters. The robbers had missed this set of 12 steps, however, providing a rare example of stones still in their original places. The researchers found another 10 stones from the staircase that had been moved but then discarded by looters. In total, these 22 stones boast 264 hieroglyphs tracing the political history of La Corona, making them the longest known ancient Maya text in Guatemala.