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Science & Environment

Debunking Doomsday And Exploring Maya Science


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Obviously here we are at 12/21/12. You're within the sound of my voice. So the world has not come to an end yet. Today was supposed to be the Maya apocalypse. We asked people in Times Square what ran through their heads this morning when they woke up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I heard that the end of the world was supposed to be today.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I didn't think that it would happen because God tells us that we don't know when the time will come.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The calendar may predict it, but it would never really happen. I think it's pretty hilarious.

FLATOW: The so-called Maya prophecy did not come true. In fact my next guests say they never predicted it, the Maya, they never predicted it in the first place. But that doesn't mean they couldn't foretell the future. For example, they always knew what phase the moon would be in or when certain planets would appear in the night sky. They even built a temple where every equinox, one of its corners casts a shadow that looks like a snake.

The Maya were brilliant mathematicians, astronomers and engineers, and my next guests are here to set the record straight. Marcello Canuto is director of the Middle American Research Institute and associate professor of anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans. He's all the way in Guatemala, and he's going to be joining us as soon as we can get the phone lines working down to Guatemala.

Also with us is William Saturno. He's a National Geographic explorer and an assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University, and he joins us from WBUR. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Saturno.

WILLIAM SATURNO: Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Well, you've spent years piecing together the Maya's murals, studying their writings and culture. Where did this 2012 apocalypse idea come from?

SATURNO: Well, I mean, where the idea of apocalypse comes from is all us. I mean, it's all Western society and pop culture. The Maya had a calendar that reached the end of a long cycle of time, you know, 1,872,000 days. That ended today and starts again tomorrow.

How that got associated with the end of the world really had very little to do with the Maya.

FLATOW: Is there any reason why the prediction happens right on the winter solstice, or is this just a coincidence?

SATURNO: Chances are when the Maya set up this count of days, which happened at some point in the past, we don't actually know when they started counting, they set up a date in the distant past which was Day Zero and a day in the distant future that would be sort of the last day of that cycle.

It seems as though they planned the first of those days to be the transit of the sun, you know, across the northern parallel so that when the sun moves to the north of where they were, sometime in August of 3114 BC, and the end of that cycle happened to be on the solstice. That sort of pairing is probably something that appealed to the Maya in theory but certainly not something that they actually observed to happen because the span of time was just longer than they were around to see.

FLATOW: Dr. Canuto, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.


FLATOW: You actually found a reference to 2012 on a Maya monument. What does it say?

CANUTO: It's - well, thank you very much for the invitation for the program. This year, the project that I co-direct was lucky enough to find a monument that had a reference to this particular date, today in fact. And it was - it's a monument that has actually more to do with the politics of the time in which it was carved, which is really the end of the eighth century, but it has to do with today.

They were using that particular date in trying to create an argument, if you will, or try to create a statement by a king who had just lost a battle, and he was trying to sort of convince his allies that things were going to be OK despite the fact that he lost this battle. And he was using these cycles of time, just as Bill was just talking about, to sort of amplify and to kind of elevate the kingdom that he was - his own kingdom and his own rulership.

And they used this 2012 date as a reference point for that particular - in that particular goal.

FLATOW: So besides keeping very accurate calendars, you tell us that the Maya were terrific astronomers also. What were they aware of besides the sun and the moon?

SATURNO: Well, I mean, certainly...

CANUTO: Go ahead (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: Dr. Saturno?

SATURNO: Yeah, they certainly tracked Venus in terms of its first appearance and last appearance as morning star and first appearance and last appearance as evening star, as well as Mars, likely tracking it from retrograde to retrograde. Beyond those, they may have tracked Mercury, as well, and they certainly tracked eclipses.

FLATOW: And they tracked - they knew that Venus had a 584-day cycle in the sky and things like that? They were very good at keeping track of that stuff.

SATURNO: Yeah, I mean, they actually understood that Venus was a single body in the night sky, something that the ancient Greeks didn't recognize. The fact that it appears and disappears for different periods of time, it's around for 263 days and then vanishes, and then it reappears for 263 days and then vanishes but for only eight days.

So, I mean, it's sort of...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: Whoops. Keep going.


SATURNO: You know, the fact that it would appear and disappear in sort of different intervals was something that the Maya liked to try and predict, you know, to be able to pinpoint when in particularly that eight-day interval it would be gone, in such a short period of time. That it would disappear as the evening star and reappear only eight days later was something that they thought very important.

FLATOW: Did they have any tools to look at the sky, like a telescope, things like that?

SATURNO: Just their eyes.

FLATOW: Really? Did they write the stuff down and keep records that we could find or keep track of?

SATURNO: Well, in general the information that we have about Maya astronomy comes from a series of books that were preserved from sort of just before the arrival of the Spanish, sometime in the 15th or maybe 14th century. Until now, where at the site of Xultun in the last couple of years we've been able to uncover some wall paintings that actually replicate the kind of numerical tables that we see in the much later codices in a late classic, probably the early 800s, house in the site of Xultun that has those same tables painted on the walls.

FLATOW: They were astronomy tables, or...?

SATURNO: Yeah, there's one table that is essentially a count of days in the periods of the moon, a very accurate account of the cycle of the moon, calculating it out over a period of 162 lunations so that it has an error of only about 20 seconds from observed averages.

FLATOW: Give us a little bit of perspective on when the Maya culture existed and where - how far spread it was in geography.

SATURNO: Well, what we think of as the classic Maya civilization exists from around the second century of the common era until around the ninth century. But Maya civilization extends quite a bit further back in time from that, maybe as far back as a couple thousand before the common era.

And then the Maya are still around today. And so saying that the civilization no longer exists is a bit insulting. I mean, there are more than seven million Maya still around.

FLATOW: You also work with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. What's an archaeologist working at NASA for?


SATURNO: Well not to look for alien sites on Mars, I can assure you.

FLATOW: You're not working with von Daniken and all those old...

SATURNO: No, essentially what we do is we use space-based observation in order to get a perspective on the Earth to identify how human beings have affected the planet over long periods of time. That can be a matter of identifying archaeological sites from the marks that human beings have left or identifying irrigation patterns or ancient fields, things like that, so just simply doing it from space, observing the Earth rather than the stars.

FLATOW: Dr. Canuto, we'll see if we can get the phone lines to work a little bit better. Can you tell us about the pyramid Chichen Itza, an example of what amazing architects the Maya were?

CANUTO: Of course, the Maya, of course, (unintelligible) paid very close attention to the movement of the sun throughout the year, north and south along the horizon. And they often built buildings in accordance with those patterns so that in fact they would be aligned with the planets at particular points throughout the year that were of some relevance, what we tend to call the equinoxes and solstices.

And in the case of this one very important and very famous building called The Castillo by the Spaniards many year later, at the site of Chichen Itza, which is located in the northern part of the Maya ruins, the Maya built a building in such a way that on the equinoxes, the sun would rise at a certain angle to this building in such a way that it cast shadows and light along the staircases, the sides of the walls and the staircases, in such a way to create a pattern that looked like a diamondback pattern of what is essentially a snake, a snake body, as it seems to slither down from the sky and head towards the water, actually towards the well at the site of Chichen Itza.

So they would play a lot with these types of alignments and so forth to achieve these kinds of special points. Now it's also important to realize that these particular alignments also look relatively good the day before the equinox, the day after. It wasn't necessarily just one day. It was a period of time in which the sun would this play with this particular building.

FLATOW: How did they get to be such great engineers to be able to build these pyramids. Do we know?

CANUTO: I think that this is one of those, you know, examples of a society that we talk a lot about the collapse and the decline and so forth of the Maya, of Maya civilization, but this is a society that lasted for well beyond 2,000 years in this region. And so one of the things that we're beginning to really appreciate is the extent to which knowledge was not only accumulated but also passed down from generation to generation or from century to century.

So these were - the cities that were built in 1000 AD were examples of or were the result of over 10,000 years of knowledge about astronomy, about architecture, about the nature of the (unintelligible).

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a short break, come back and talk lots more with Marcello Canuto and William Saturno, our number 1-800-989-8255 if you have questions about the Maya. We're here to answer them. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about science, math, engineer of the ancient Maya with my guests: Marcello Canuto of Tulane in New Orleans; and William Saturno, assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Caroline(ph) in Anchorage, hi Caroline.

CAROLINE: Good afternoon. I had wanted to know from these, from the experts, including you, of course, what was the relative comparison between the Mayans' theoretical scientific ability versus the European or dominant - that became the dominant culture? And because the applied science such as in ships, they had no need for that, but obviously you're talking about their engineering ability.

But I just wanted to find out and validate in my mind how excellent they were in their theoretical science.

FLATOW: You mean like compared to classical Greek and things like that in Western culture?


FLATOW: Good question. Dr. Canuto, Saturno, any answer to that?

SATURNO: Well, I would say it's a very hard thing to evaluate mainly because when we look at the ancient societies of the old world, we can talk about specific philosophers, specific mathematicians, scientists, and their works. And that's not something we can do when we talk about the ancient Maya. We just don't have access to that kind of recordkeeping.

I mean, the types of information that they would be writing down in books simply isn't preserved for us to find. So being able to sort of assess what kinds of things Maya scientists were thinking about and talking about is hard to get at.

FLATOW: Did they also have aqueducts and engineering feats, the kind you would see in ancient Rome? And if not, why not?

SATURNO: Certainly they did. I mean, managing water was probably the most important thing that the ancient Maya had to do in the sense that they live in a place with a very pronounced dry season, where drought is actually very common even beyond the dry season and where much of their building, in addition to their agricultural needs and living needs, requires large amounts of water.

And so you really need to not only predict the - when water is going to be there, you know when it isn't, and you have to have a supply reserved in order to survive and build with and to move it from Point A to Point B effectively. And that's something the Maya were quite excellent at.

FLATOW: Let's go to Gary(ph) in Washington, D.C. Hi Gary, welcome.

GARY: Hi, I'm calling from the District of Columbia. I have an understanding of the Gregorian calendar that we use, and it has a 400-year cycle. And as I understand it, the Maya used various different calendars or have over time, the same way that we have the Julian calendar and the various lunar calendars used by Muslims, Jews, Tibetans and others. Could you explain more about the calendrical systems that the Maya used in more detail?

I understand they had a 266-day calendar, as well. I think the kerfuffle about this doomsday prophecy could have been explained a whole lot better if the experts had talked more about the calendars and less about planets and the stuff crashing into the Earth and all that kind of stuff.

FLATOW: OK, good point, Gary. Let's see if we can get into some of the details of the calendar. Dr. Saturno?

SATURNO: Certainly. I mean, the Maya used a number of different calendars, three basic calendars during the classic period. One was a 260-day ritual calendar, not 266 but 260, and a 365-day solar calendar. And in addition to those, they used what we call a long count, essentially a count of days since fairly arbitrary zero day in the distant past.

Now with those three, you could anchor any events sort of securely in time. Now what's sort of remarkable about it, it's not very different from the system that we use. I mean, we use a 365-day solar calendar. We use a count of days from an arbitrary starting point. We just group those days into 365s and call them years. So we're in year 2012 since that start date, which was fixed long after the actual date.

And then for a ceremonial calendar, we rely generally on a seven-day ceremonial calendar, and the important day in that ceremonial calendar may vary with a particular religious interest, but in general we can talk about a day not only as being the 21st of December but as being Friday the 21st of December. And that particular day won't reappear for a number of years.

We may get the 21st again, certainly next year, but it won't be on a Friday.

FLATOW: And they had a unit of time called - was it the baktun, which is 400 years long?

SATURNO: Yeah, it's part of that long count. It's essentially like an odometer in your car, but it tracks units in days, was the first digit, and then 20-day periods, then 360-day periods because that's close to a solar year, and then 2,360-day periods, which are 7,200 days. That was a katun. And then 144,000 days, 20 of those katuns, which was a baktun.

And that essentially made up the five digits that they counted regularly. But they of course had more digits than that. Those are just the ones that they recorded normally, in the same way that we tend not to have a millions digit on our car odometer, mainly because that millionth digit is unlikely to change anytime soon, and if it did, you know, we'd know. We'd recognize it as different than zero.

FLATOW: Dr. Canuto, did you want to jump in there?

CANUTO: Yes, I suppose I - that very explanation, I think you get basically the understanding. And I think one of the things that also has to be appreciated with today's date especially and the idea of this large cycle is that this is best understood as an anniversary date, that is this is the day in which the calendar, as it begins counting from its zero day, now appears to look - the number of days that have passed since the creation, to be the exact same day as the creation day itself.

And so this is why this is of such great importance, that it's finally going to start counting from zero, from this initial date. So today the calendar looks, if you will write it down, it's now reached a certain count that would have been exactly the same count as the day of creation, 5,200 years ago.

So it's one - it's not as if it's a (unintelligible) large cycle. Tomorrow the calendar would not go back to zero. The calendar would continue, 13-0-0-0-0-1. But it's such an important stopping point because it is - it looks like the way it looked the day that the world was created or that creation happened.

FLATOW: Are there celebrations in Guatemala today?

CANUTO: Yes there are in fact. There were a lot of them yesterday evening, starting at midnight and going on until today. In fact actually one of the more exciting things that is happening here now is for the first time in over 1,000 years in some places, new monuments are being erected in honor of this date.

So there's a sense of revivalism that's occurring at many of the sites throughout Guatemala.

FLATOW: So today, if I've got it correct, Dr. Saturno, is the - today the 13th baktun begins, and 13 is a special number in the Maya?

SATURNO: Yes, yes certainly.

FLATOW: So it's like we celebrate, like seven is special in our culture, 13 is special in theirs?

SATURNO: Well, 20, 13, 18, these are all important numbers that the Maya track and that they likely found resonance with looking at the night sky, sort of that 260-day ceremonial cycle of 13 20s. Well, three of those make 780, which is the period of Mars. You can combine that 260-day cycle in a 365-day cycle in order to make another period of time that they felt was resonant.

So there's a lot of ratios that the Maya are calculating between these periods that I think for them probably indicated they were on the right track, right, that they understood the world around them in a meaningful and predictable way, sort of like as we try to unlock, you know, the God particle. As we get closer and closer to that, we feel like we're on the path to something and that yes, we have a greater understanding of the natural world than we did beforehand.

FLATOW: Well, we have another holiday to celebrate today besides the holiday season week, celebrate - help the Maya celebrate today in their celebrations. Thank you for pointing that out, and thank you both for taking time to be with us today, Marcello Canuto, director of the...

CANUTO: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Director of the Middle American Research Institute, associate professor of anthropology at Tulane in New Orleans. William Saturno, a National Geographic explorer, assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University. Happy many holidays to all of you. Thanks for joining us today.

SATURNO: Thank you.

CANUTO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.