What have the Mayans ever done for us... apart from predict the end of the world?

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Tim Walker on the constructive side of the prophets of doom

They might be best known for having predicted the end of the world on 21 December 2012, but the Mayans gave us so much more to appreciate, admire and learn from before our inevitable doom.

The very fact that the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar survives to this day – well, to Friday, to be precise – is a measure of the Mayans’ success.

Meanwhile Mayan civilisation, which included some of the grandest and most complex cities in Central America, spread across the southern states of present-day Mexico, and spanned more than 3,000 years before the arrival of the Europeans. The Mayan people are still present in the region they dominated and beyond, in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala. Millions still speak Mayan languages. Perhaps the Mayans’ most singular achievement was to develop the only known written language in the pre-Columbian Americas that corresponds directly to a spoken language.

The first signs of Mayan influence have been traced back as far as 2,600BC, but archaeologists now agree the first exclusively Mayan communities were established on Mexico’s Pacific coast around 1,800BC. They farmed intensively and traded with their neighbours in goods such as cacao and salt. Their sophisticated agricultural system came to sustain crops including corn and cotton.

Mayan society reached its peak during the so-called “classic” period between 250 and 900AD, when its cities bustled with populations well into the tens of thousands. At one time, Tikal, in northern Guatemala, is thought to have been home to 100,000 people.

Mayan cities were interconnected fiefdoms, but they lacked a political core, which made their subjugation by the Spanish a drawn-out process lasting some 170 years. Those cities are still known for their architectural achievements: the pyramids that housed temples.

Their urban design, say experts, was focused on these grand structures, often at the expense of residential considerations. This doesn’t mean the Mayans were impractical, however: in the ancient city of Palenque, for instance, archaeologists believe they’ve found plumbing consistent with engineered water pressure.

Keen astronomers, the Mayans built their temples to correspond to the celestial map. Their astronomical observations are said to be at least the equal of any other pre-telescopic civilisation. The classic period of Mayan history was so-named for its art – murals, carvings, reliefs – which, in its skill and beauty, the region’s conquerors thought recalled the classical art of the Old World. And the Mayan written language, composed of a few hundred hieroglyphs, has been dated to 200-300BC, and was in use continuously until the arrival of the Spanish.

Naturally, Spanish priests ordered that all paper texts be burned, and only three Mayan codices have survived intact. It is believed their religion and its rituals were based on celestial and earthly cycles, and that the annual calendar played a key role, and that Mayan priests performed human sacrifices.

The demise of Mayan civilisation has been blamed on a number of factors, none conclusively: overpopulation, disease, and a 200-year drought are among the theories. Having converted much of their forests into farmland, they may even have been history’s first victims of climate change.

As for the coming apocalypse that many expect to wipe out the rest of us, doom-sayers point to the creation stories in the Popol Vuh, a surviving set of mythic Mesoamerican tales, which supposedly suggests that 21 December might be when the gods decide (for the fourth time) that the world is imperfect, and that it would be simpler to tear it up and start all over again. Experts in Mayan culture, however, claim the 2012 phenomenon is based on a misinterpretation, and fuelled by internet paranoia.

In May, the oldest known copy of the Mayan calendar was found painted on a wall in the Guatemalan rainforest, among the ruins of an ancient city. Archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas, who deciphered the calendar, said there was nothing to worry about: “The Mayan calendar is going to keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years.”

That also appears to be the attitude of Mexico’s remaining Mayan population, of around 800,000, most of whom still live in the Yucatan peninsula. Reports suggest Mayan priests in the region have no idea when the world will end. And they certainly aren’t advising their congregations to stock up on canned goods.

World prepares for the worst

* Sales of survival shelters ahead of the 21 December 2012 predicted doomsday date have reportedly soared, especially in the US. There is a large array of possible bunkers and protective structures on the market, including a reinforced-glass-fibre sphere dubbed “Noah’s Capsule” which can accommodate up to 12 people. Measuring 1.2m in diameter, it sports a self-righting design to keep its door and air ducts pointing above the waterline in the event of apocalyptic floods.

* Although the arguments of doomsday believers have met with light-hearted disbelief across most of the world, in China the approach has been more heavy-handed. More than 500 people from a fringe Christian group who spread rumours about the world’s end were yesterday reported to have been arrested. Officials were said to have seized leaflets, CDs and books proclaiming the imminent end of the world across the country ahead of Friday.

* According to the Associated Press, those held were members of the group Almighty God, also called Eastern Lightning, which preaches that Jesus has reappeared as a woman in central China. It has been accused of targeting Christians, and conducting forced conversions using violence.

* Residents of the French village of Bugarach are relaxed. Internet rumour surrounding the Mayan prophecy somehow gave rise to the suggestion that this tiny place (which has a historical association with UFOs and UFO enthusiasts) would be the only one to survive the end of the world. The online rumour was reportedly spotted by a villager in 2010, who raised it with village authorities, who in turn raised it with the whole community to discuss how Bugarach would cope with the potential global attention. Once the press were briefed, that global attention became a reality.

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