According to recent summations of MesoAmerican Calendar Theory there is no “great cycle” in the Mayan calendar. So all the hype leading up to December 21, 2012 essentially wasted a great deal of energy among the ignorant, the profane, and the exasperated.
Mayan priests were not above pulling a Pope Gregory with their calendar, and current research suggests that somewhere in the past few centuries or millennia the Mayans changed their calendar system by expanding it. Scholars now speak in terms of “13 Baktuns versus 20 Baktuns” but they are trying to avoid saying “great cycle” (an expression that was popularized in 1897 by a journalist named Joseph T. Goodman).
Yes, Virginia, a journalist laid the foundations of one of the greatest calendaric frauds in history — the false notion that there was a “great cycle” embedded in the Mayan calendar system. The “cycles” are simply used for calculation, much as we use our centuries and millennia for calculations.
The Mayan system has caused much confusion and numerous attempts to create tools that correlate the calendar with our own. Dates, as any historian can tell you, are subject to change in the study of history because they are not literally carved in stone — except where primitive societies left behind records of their activities, or projections of their ancestors’ activities.
We cannot necessarily trust all recorded dates because they may have been falsified, misremembered, smudged, recomputed, or miswritten. Worse yet, they might be entirely speculative or based on oral reports that could not be substantiated. Historians often speak more of events than of dates because it is less confusing to say “Caesar crossed the Rubicon with a legion some time before he was slain in the Roman Senate”. Yes, that statement leaves out much history and provides no dates but it provides the correct sequence of events.
It is completely correct to say that we are still in the (near-middle) of a Mayan 20-Baktun cycle as much as it is to say that we have just witnessed the (almost uneventful) end of a 13-Baktun cycle. Neither cycle is supposed to end with the destruction of the world. In fact, it would be better to say that the Maya measure time in cycles embedded within cycles, and the priests who were charged with maintaining and enhancing the calendar system very cleverly developed a special mathematics that manipulated their cycles so that they could “explore the measurement of time”.
Given all that, people are still seeking for significance over the past 13 Baktuns to learn if the Maya (and other MesoAmericans) might have been on to something. The 1st Baktun of the last 13 began sometime in 3116 BCE (not 3114 as reported across the Web) according to modern (non-Mayan) reconstructions and comparisons with the Gregorian Calendar.
There is no world-wide correlation, of course, although some interesting events did happen within +/- 100 years of 3114 BCE. For example, somewhat prior to that year Narmer brought Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt under the rule of one Pharoah for the first time. In Hindu teachings the Kali Yuga (the last of four great ages in the Yuga cycles, and which is named for the demon Kali) began around 3102 BCE.
We currently believe that Egypt began using hierglyphics around this time, but science reserves the right to change that opinion should uncontested older uses be identified.
We also currently believe that Minoan civilization arose on the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean Sea around this time.
And Neolithic peoples appear to have begun building some of the largest and most ancient stone monuments or communities in what are now Scotland, England, and Ireland around this time.
In other words, to the best of our knowledge, not a whole lot was going on at the time. Most people in those days went about their lives completely oblivious to the changing of Baktuns and other calendaric cycles across the world.
On the other hand, we can say conclusively that human civilization has experienced more growth and evolution over the past 51 centuries than in the previous 51 centuries. Looking back to 8244 BCE we see that we began domesticating more animals shortly after that time; Jericho may have been founded between 8244 and 8000 BCE. The Kiffian culture of the Green Sahara arose around 8,000 BCE.
We also believe that Gobekli Tepe may have been abandoned around 8000 BCE. Hence, given the dearth of information about what was happening around 10,256 years ago we are better able to correlate significant “known” events with a backward projection of 13 Baktuns. However, if the Mayans were also interested in 20 Baktun cycles then we owe it to our curiosity to look at 7900-year spans of history.
5900 BCE was not a big year for significant events although some research suggests that the English Channel, Persian Gulf, and Black Sea were formed around that time due to flooding — flooding driven by the continued melting of glaciers. Global warming continues today and scientists predict that within the next 100-150 years hundreds if not thousands of many islands around the world will vanish as the seas swallow them up.
However, if we’re going to look at history and pre-history through the lens of a 20-Baktun cycle then we have to remember that the current cycle ends around the year 4778 CE (and that assumes we’ll still be here using the Gregorian calendar in 2700 years).
The idea that climate change may have influenced prehistoric changes in cultures is very popular. I have written about a putative 1200-year environmental cycle that may coincide with significant human events. But it could also be a 1500-year environmental cycle. More likely it’s just that the environment expands and retracts in cyclical ways across a varying length of time in each period, probably lasting between 1,000 and 1,500 years.
As far as we know modern human culture began to take shape around 12,000 years ago (although some research is now striving to push that date back). Over the past 10 conveniently designated environmental cycles each period could have lasted about 1,200 years but need. Nonetheless, we can draw up a completely artificial 1500-year cycle calendar starting with the Younger Dryas, dating to about 13,000 BCE:
- 13,000 – 11,500 BCE: Younger Dryas (last cool period leading to the start of the Holocene Epoch); Neolithic cultures in China
- 11,500 – 10,000 BCE: Transition from Mesolithic cultures to Neolithic cultures begins across Eurasia
- 10,000 – 8,500 BCE: Gobekli Tepe flourishes in Anatolia (modern southern Turkey in Asia Minor)
- 8,500 – 7000 BCE: Rise of Kiffian culture in Green Sahara; possible “Persian Gulf” & “Black Sea” cultures
- 7,000 – 5,500 BCE: Decline of the Kiffian culture in Green Sahara; end of the “Persian Gulf” and “Black Sea” cultures; millet agriculture in China; pre-writing pictographs in China
- 5,500 – 4,000 BCE: Rise of Mesopotamian and Chinese pre-civilzations; Egyptian culture emerges along the Nile; Neolithic farmers migrate into Europe; rise of Yellow River cultures in China
- 4,000 – 2,500 BCE: Horses and metals begin spreading across Europe, Asia, and Africa; Indus valley culture flourishes; writing emerges in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus valley, and China; agriculture develops in MesoAmerica
- 2,500 – 1,000 BCE: Egypt, Minoa, Mesopotamia, & China build the 1st great civilizations that leave historical records; civilizations emerge in MesoAmerica
- 1,000 BCE – 500 CE: Classical civilizations flourish across Europe, north Africa, the Middle East, India, and China; the Classic MesoAmerican era begins around 200 CE
- 500 – 2000 CE: Transition from classical civilizations to modern civilization as cultures gradually connect and interact.
- 2000 CE – : We’re in the age of the Internet and personal interconnectivity.
History is not a natural record so much as a human interpretation or filtration of events. We record what is important to us, we commemorate what is important to us, and we pass on what is important to us. But each generation and region creates its own history, or rewrites the histories acquired from other generations and regions.
So we should be careful not to assign too much importance to chronologies, calendars, and lists of dates or events. It’s easier to create a false sense of knowledge about the past than it is to unravel the faux histories that have been popularized through the years.