by Robb Fulcher
If you are reading this after Dec. 21, Donald Hales was right.
A potential doomsday, supposedly prophesied by the pre-Columbian Maya people of Mexico and Guatemala, has come and gone without the end of the world as we know it.
A number of authors, bloggers and small filmmakers predicted a cataclysm or other massive upheaval, and the major motion picture “2012” further boosted the profile of the supposed apocalypse.
Public concern has grown enough to prompt NASA scientists to go online and answer nervous questions about perceived threats from invisible planets or black holes.
But Hermosa native Hales, 58 — whose photos of an elusive and fragmentary Maya artifact provided a key piece of the Dec. 21 puzzle — stands with serious scholars and scientists who naysay the doomsayers.
“We’re not talking about the end of the world,” Hales nay-said.
The Maya artifact photographed by Hales as a boy in 1965 is a man-high stone monument, covered with bold Maya hieroglyphs dating from the seventh century.
“Monument 6,” discovered by the moderns at the Tortuguero archeological site in sun-baked southern Mexico, predicts events up until Dec. 21, 2012, but no further.
Counting the days
Maya scholars long noted that Dec. 21 marks the end of a 5,128-year cycle in the Mayas’ “long-count” calendar, a remarkably precise, astronomically-based instrument. And as they worked to untangle the complicated language of the glyphs, the notion was entertained that the end of the Mayas’ 13-“bak’tun” cycle marked the end of everything else, too.
Then, in the 1970s, the apocalypse theory was scrapped as researchers further decoded the Mayas’ language, peering behind veils of stone into a world of grim gods, spirit animals, shamanic transformations, human sacrifice and time-soaked tales of war, empire and the reign of kings.
Monument 6 tells a sweeping tale of events past and future, up until our Dec. 21, 2012. But the work of anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, historians and epigraphers – decoders of glyphs – demonstrated that the monument bears no apocalyptic prediction.
“Everything you hear about 2012 is total modern fantasy,” said Mark Van Stone, a leading Maya scholar and author of the book “2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya.”
Van Stone said the previous apocalypse theory made its way into the public imagination, but the scholars’ later debunking of the theory did not seem to penetrate beyond academia.
“The public didn’t get the memo,” said the much in-demand Van Stone, speaking by telephone in his car, as he drove to a San Diego TV studio for yet another interview.
He added that as time went on, the researchers’ non-apocalyptic view was further confirmed by a separate Maya monument found in Palenque, which predicts at least one event to occur in the yet far future, more than 2,000 years from now.
Scholars say that the monument does not call special attention to Dec. 21, 2012, but merely mentions the date. If Dec. 21 would mark the world’s end, or a new epoch, it would have warranted more than an incidental mention, Van Stone said.
Of gods and men
It was Hales’ photography of an elusive fragment of the monument that allowed scholars to determine why Dec. 21 is mentioned at all.
Decoding the glyphs in his photos showed that Dec. 21 was said to be the date that a minor god is to descend “in costume,” perhaps to be channeled by an earthly king during a temple dedication. Hales’ photos provide the only evidence available to researchers about the doings of the god, B’olon Yokte’ K’uh, on the much-discussed date.
“If it wasn’t for that photograph, we wouldn’t know what it was that is supposed to happen on Dec. 21,” Hales said.
Hales was an 11-year-old photography buff when he set up a tripod on the floor of a Los Angeles area museum to capture images of an interesting stone artifact, using a German camera given him by his father, the late Hermosa Beach amateur historian John Hales.
“I had no idea what I was photographing,” Donald Hales said.
As it turned out, he was shooting critical portions of Monument 6.
The portion describing Dec. 21 now stands in mothballs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and is described in the museum’s official database as “Not on View.”
While the fragment remains out of the reach of most scholars, Hales said serious researchers are at times allowed to see the fragment, after pleading their case to museum officials.
Another fragment photographed by Hales has completely vanished within the reticent network of those who handle such artifacts. It is widely thought to be in the hands of a private collector.
“I wish we knew where that one is, but we don’t,” Hales said.
Yet another section of the monument never came north to the U.S. It was discovered by construction workers in Mexico, and stands on display in a museum in Villahermosa, near the Tortuguero ruins.
The quality of the young Hales’ photography also draws praise from scholars, who credit him with the clearest photos of Monument 6.
“Donald has done some great photography,” Van Stone said.
A popular strain of 2012 lay enthusiasts have declared that Dec. 21 would mark either the end of time or a bend in time, kicking off a new, more spiritually realized era on Earth.
They point to a confluence of events, summarized by Van Stone to include:
A Dec. 21 alignment of the Earth and Sun with a “dark rift” in the Milky Way, which last occurred about 26,000 years ago,
The beginning of a possible reversal of the magnetic poles of the Earth,
Venus crossing between the Earth and Sun, which happens about once a century,
NASA’s prediction of an unusually powerful sunspot season that occurs every 11 years, disrupting satellite communications,
Wars and rumors of wars, including chaos in the apocalypse-shadowed Middle East, and events such as food shortages, global warming-related super storms, and soaring gas prices.
The calendar reflected in Monument 6 measures time periods of 144,000 days, which is the number of devotees taken up in the Rapture, according to some interpretations of the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“Is this the end? No it isn’t. And it isn’t the beginning of the Age of Aquarius, because we’re a few decades into that,” said Hales, who also co-authored the 1981 book “The Maya Book of the Dead: The Ceramic Codex” with Francis Robicsek.
“As to a polar shift, if you have any idea of magnetic pulls, they move around on a yearly basis. Studies have shown that the North Pole has wobbled on its location from true magnetic north over the centuries,” he said.
“The thing is, nothing is going to happen,” Hales said.
Unlike the lay enthusiasts, scholars do not speak highly of the ancient Mayas’ predictive powers in general. The ancients believed that their empire would endure centuries longer than it did, and they failed to predict the European conquest, a truly apocalyptic event for their people.
Onto the trail
Following the young Hales’ serendipitous photography, Maya studies would capture his imagination for decades, sparking frequent contact with leading scholars, fluency in epigraphy, and the co-authorship of his book.
As a student at Mira Costa High School, Hales wrote an essay concerning ancient Aztec culture which his teacher, Margaret A. Nicholson, showed to her husband, Henry B. Nicholson, a UCLA anthropology professor.
Hales would go on to study anthropology at UCLA, forming a lifelong friendship with Nicholson, whom Hales describes as an important mentor.
Date with history
Many serious Mayanists have Dec. 21 marked on their calendar as a big party day, and many scratch their heads over the numbers of lay people who fret over the date.
“I’ve never met anyone who was worried about it, personally,” said Jeffrey Buechler, an epigrapher who teaches anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Van Stone plans to spend Dec. 21 at a massive, Maya-inspired celebration in Chichen Itza, Mexico. He has spoken at a long-running series of conferences leading up to the celebration, which has sold out area hotels.
In Guatemala, officials have invited Sting, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Elton John and others to perform.
“The tourist trade in Mexico and Guatemala will go through the roof,” Hales said. “That, I can predict.”
For his part, Van Stone can predict that the news media will turn its collective spotlight away from Maya studies after Dec. 21.
But he foreshadowed a sequel.
“The Aztec calendar has its end in 2027, so that will probably be the next big thing,” he said.
“2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya,” by Mark Van Stone, is available on Amazon.com, or as a PDF on markvanstone.com ER