Posted by: Johan Normark | October 11, 2009

2012: “Baktuniarism” – or why I changed my mind regarding cosmology

One might ask why I am so irritated by the 2012 circus? Is this “end date” not important to the past and present Maya? Well, it had some importance to the ancient Maya, but not more than other so-called period endings that they celebrated every 5, 10, 20 or 400 years. Hence, the Classic period Maya focused on period endings of various durations in their inscriptions. It is sometimes argued that the calendars gave the Maya a millenarian or prophetic foundation for their martial and passive resistance to their later Spanish oppressors. The Spaniards knew how the calendars functioned and they manipulated them to suit their own interests as sometimes is argued to have occured with the Spanish conquest of Tayasal in 1697 which coincided more or less with a period ending. Hence, it is suggested that the earlier Maya calendars had similar functions and meanings (never mind the “third space of enunciation” that I brought up in my last post). The calendars function and meaning probably changed with the conquest since we find millenarian ideas associated with it which appears to have Christian origin.

Before my current materialist phase I was inspired by cosmological approaches in Mayanist studies. This was before I began to realise the shaky foundation they all rest upon. The Colonial documents, ethnohistorical sources and ethnographical analogies tries to create a linear history often based on an ideal essential property. This is usually a cosmology that has transpired through Colonial oppression more or less intact. Hence, plenty of Mayanists have relied on such essentials and used later sources to interpret earlier ones. This is still common and the best example today is Prudence Rice’s may-cycle (13 Katun, Short Count) model which is based on early Colonial sources and projected backwards in time. She is actually reusing and expanding earlier models developed by Puleston, Haviland and Coggins. Here we get a picture almost reminiscent of Thompson’s time-worshipping Maya (but with warfare included in the picture).

It may come as a surprise then that I also found such ideas convincing ten years ago. This was also before I began to realise the complexities in time-philosophy as such, something the 2012 hoaxers are completely unaware of. I called my approach “Baktuniarism” and it focused on Baktun (Pik) endings rather than 13 Katun cycle endings. Thus, I saw major changes on a regional level every 394 years instead of every 256 years. I also made the fallacy of using contemporary highland Maya groups’ views of time to explain past calendar functions (such as Tzutujil and Kiché). The Tzutujil view time as a living entity which has to be delivered in a similar way to a human baby. Different parts of time are different aspects of certain gods. By sacrificing to the gods, time itself is given nourishment (Prechtel & Carlsen 1988:128). In this way, time becomes a burden which the men and women have to carry. The Kiché of contemporary Momostenango are interested in time´s qualitative aspects, especially its importance for human beings. Each day has its own ”face”, that is, its own identity and character, which influence the events of the day. The daykeeper uses the calendar to divine and answer a client´s questions. ”The speaking blood” is a “shamanistic” gift which the daykeeper has and uses in connection with the calendar divinations. The daykeeper´s body is in this context seen as a microcosm filled with blood movements which reflect the past and the future in the macrocosm (Tedlock 1992:2-3).

How much of these ideas goes back to ancient times in another region is not the issue here. However, if we can learn something from the contemporary Maya groups it is that the stereotypcial dichotomy between linear and cyclical time does not apply. No given time, neither the past, the present or the future, can be isolated from the segments of time which precede or succeed it among the Kiché. Time cannot be eradicated; it will accumulate as a burden. Time inherits time from earlier ages (Tedlock 1992:202). For this reason, it is wrong to say that the Maya have or perhaps even had a cyclical view of time, as it is usually described in both Mayanist and 2012 propecy literature. In Classic period inscriptions the time periods are also stacked on top of each other and this is completely missed when one represent time as cogwheels. Time is rather cumulative than cyclical.

In both the Long and the Short Count, period-endings were the most important stages in time. Time was also counted in past time. The end of a period was more important than the beginning, since it marked the completion of the period and the next period´s initial influence. The last day also marked that the burden of this time period had reached its termination (Gossen 1974:228, Hunt 1977:72). All time periods ended on the day Ajaw. During the Postclassic, the Katuns, for example, were named after the Ajaw on which the period ended (Love 1994:17). The day Ajaw is represented by the number zero in the kin position of the Long Count calendar. Zero was usually depicted as a shell, something believed to have been a symbol of birth, death, the regeneration of life and the female genitals. Zero did not mean ”nothing” but rather that the count of days moved up to a higher level, a way to stack another time period on top of another one. Once again, the Maya Long Count dates accumulated on top of each other like a burden.

The so-called Books of Chilam Balam in Yucatan have often been seen as historical documents and also formed the foundation for the May cycle model. The books describe events mixed with millenarian ideas that have been thought to have influenced the course of history. According to these chronicles, the Itza were driven away from their homes during every Katun 8 Ajaw, that is, at intervals of 256 years. These chronicles are, of course, dubious as historical sources. Contemporary events were, for example, placed in different Katun-cycles. The archaeological material does not support the parts of the Chilam Balam that deal with early Katun-cycles. However, Puleston, Rice and others argue that what is important, however, is how they viewed their history. The Maya view of history did not mean that events would repeat themselves, but rather that history followed some basic, predictable patterns (Puleston 1979:65ff). Coggins argues that the changes of Baktuns played an important role in the history of the Maya. According to her, the Baktun-endings created a millenarian terror, a fear that time and the world would cease to exist (Coggins 1990:82).

Archaeologists have also interpreted patterns in the archaeological record from period endings. For example, Christopher Jones argued that Tikal passed through seven large-scale transformations and expansions of the city plan and that these followed a cycle of roughly 200 years. In between these expansive episodes, there were long periods when the builders concentrated on building within established forms. This period of 200 years is almost the same as a half baktun (197 years) (Jones 1996:105, 122).  

Now, ten years ago I followed this line of thought. Based on loose evidence I suggested that Baktun endings coincided with major changes in the Central Lowlands. We do not know when the Long Count calendar may have been invented. The earliest Long Count date is from Chiapa de Corzo (37 B.C.). Four other sites also have Long Count dates from Baktun 7. However, the Late Formative period began around 300-400 B.C. The last construction phase of the major temple at Nakbé, north- west of Tikal, has been dated to around 350 B.C. After this, the site went into decline, however, there was a substantial Late Classic occupation of some parts of the site. Baktun 6 ended in 354 B.C., which is close to the date of the Nakbé temple. Richard Hansen has also argued that the beginning of Baktun 7 saw the emergence of new architecture and ceramics. This pattern of considerable construction activity around a Baktun-ending, I argued, can be seen in later periods. This led me to believe that the Long Count calendar had been in used for at least a couple of centuries before the end of Baktun 6. The large temple at Nakbé also covers the site of a much earlier temple, which has been dated to around 600 B.C. (Scarborough 1993). Hence I believed that the Long Count calendar existed at least before 354 B.C. in the Lowlands.

Another nearby city, north of Nakbé, grew in importance after this Baktun ending. This was El Mirador, the most massive of all known Maya centres, with several colossal temples. The last construction phases of the three largest temples (Monos, Tigre and Danta) have been dated to roughly A.D. 50. It seems as if the city went into decline after this, and it was probably abandoned by the elite around A.D. 150 (Hansen & Forsyth 1990). The most interesting fact here is that Baktun 7 ended in A.D. 41, that is, around the time when the huge temples were constructed. Tikal also went through a substantial construction phase around the birth of Christ, just a few decades before the rich Burial 85 was built around the end of Baktun 7 (Jones 1996:107).

As for the next Baktun ending in A.D. 436 we have more data. At this time, Siyaj Chan K´awil governed Tikal. However, no monument was raised at Tikal in connection with the end of Baktun 8. However, the date was celebrated ten years later on stela 31. At this time, Tikal was in a not completely well known connection with the central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacán (at least since A.D. 378). However, when we do have more data the Baktun ending hypothesis begin to be more problematic to maintain. I doubt that there were many grand construction projects at this time. The main change that occurs after this Baktun ending was the spread of more inscribed monuments with calendar dates throughout the Lowlands beyond the central part, such as to Copan.

The next Baktun ending occured in A.D. 830 and its coincidence with the “Maya collapse” has been seen as one major line of evidence that the Maya had a fatalistic view of their calendar. However, if we leave the drought hypothesis for another post, it is usually argued that the drastic decrease of monument and stela dedications after the peak in A.D. 790 ( is an initial indication of the collapse. The last great temple at Tikal to be constructed was Temple III around 810, only a Katun before the Baktun ending. However, a stela and an altar were erected in 869. Sometime after this, the elite abandoned Tikal. Common households were raised upon the monumental architecture as early as A.D. 900 (Jones 1996:120).

Seibal, south of Tikal, is interesting since it had a “renaissance” when other Maya centers went into decline. The oldest preserved stela was raised in 771 and most were raised in 850, one Katun after the Baktun-ending. Structure A-3 at Seibal has four stairs and was designed in the form of a cyclic completion glyph. Similar structures were raised at Chichén Itzá and Dzibilchaltún in the north. Seibal´s Emblem glyph contained the glyphs for Baktun (Coggins 1990:89-93), which probably meant that the rulers of Seibal saw themselves as carriers of the new Baktun, as the rulers of Tikal may have done earlier.

Later Baktun-endings were not celebrated, as far as we know. Baktun 10 ended in 1224, which coincided with the Itzá at Mayapán, according to the Books of Chilam Balam. Baktun 11 ended in 1618 and probably had no connection with Maya history. The next Baktun-ending will be in 2012 and the revitalization movements in, for example, Guatemala will surely see this date as an important one, since the calendar is one of their main ethnic markers.

The rational behind the importance of the Baktun endings in Prehispanic times, according to my earlier ideas was this: The Maya saw both time and space as living beings which had to be reproduced as in a human birth and given nurture with the most potent substance in the cosmos, the blood from the king’s genitals (a strong Schelean influence I may add). Time and space grew older like humans and other living beings. Time and space were also manifested in the temples and the stelae. The temple was the living being in which time, space and society could be reproduced. Since time was similar to a human being, it needed ”heat” (yet another possible Colonial influence) to manage the passage between two Baktuns. By constructing large and high temples and raising many stelae, they increased the heat of the sanctified space and gave this to the moving and aging sun, and thus gave time a safe passage to be re-born the day after the Baktun-ending.

Like in Rice’s may-cycle model I argued that some centres (such as Tikal and Seibal) may have seen themselves as carriers of time at the time of certain Baktun endings. That may have been the reason why there was especially great construction activity before the Baktun-endings. This large-scale construction activity led to the weakening of the economy, war over scarce resources increased and there was deforestation on account of the need of firewood for producing lime plaster for the temples (but see Abrams for another argument). The result was usually that these sites lost their prominent positions after the Baktun-ending. The Maya elite probably knew about earlier ”collapses”, but in their cosmology it was more important to secure the passage of time. Time thus became a real burden for the whole society. The reason why there was not a recovery after the end of Baktun 9 may have had to do with the much higher population density at the end of the Classic. The environment could not cope with deforestation produced by both the demands of the increased population and the need for constructing temples. Earlier on, the population pressure was much lower and the cities could recover or at least re-settle at another site.

Now, this is of course a way too simplistic perspective and it makes wrong assumptions. I shall elaborate it in another post as I discuss the relevance of the may-cycle model. What is crucial and related to the whole 2012 circus is that the ideas presented above are millenarian and arborescent at its core. It is also a fundamentally Christian way of understanding the world. Kumar defines Christian millenniarism as the belief that the end of the world is near. A new world will be created by a Messiah. The end of the world will see armed conflicts, but the good will triumph over the evil. The new millennium will be peaceful and righteous. Millenarians face the future rather than look back at the past (Kumar 1991:7). As far as my knowledge of the Maya today shows, this is very far from what we can tell from the Prehispanic data. The postconquest data only distort our understanding of the Maya. The Christian influence is probably greater than we can imagine and in the third space hybrids are created that bear little resemblance with earlier patterns.

I hope no 2012 hoaxer will use my old Baktunian model and claim that the rise of skyscrapers, increased warfare, etc. are an indication that the Maya “prophecies” were true. I was wrong back then and I think that the may-cycle model has similar flaws.



  1. a thesis on its own. great job.

  2. Fascinating, fascinating. I know a teensy eentsy bit about Mayan culture (from casual conversation with a Hopi painter and architect, Dennis Numkena) and so, I had a big frown on my face when I saw the article headline on the Huffington Post about 2012. Thanks for this great post.

  3. It is actually a shortened version of an old “History of Science” paper that was rewritten an published in 2000 (too late since I actually wrote it for the millennium).

  4. Interesting, time and the rebirth of the sun needing heat. I know a Mexican Mayan woman who tried modern infertility treatments without success and who is now using a method she says is traditionally Mayan. The belief is that her womb needs more heat if a child is going to be conceived. She is therefore on a special diet. She won’t walk barefoot on the “cold” ground or floor. She won’t put her hands in cold water. Relations with her husband are limited to specific times.

  5. The “hot/cold” system is nowadays “traditionally” Maya but the question is how far back in time we can project this in the Americas. Some believe it is a colonial idea brought over from the Mediterranean by the Spaniards (and over there it goes back to the ancient Greeks, such as Hippocrates and humorism ( However, the Maya did use sweatbaths long before this so the Maya views of heat and cold may have a separate origin that was later mixed up with the European system.

  6. The Yucatec Close Their Windows At Night To Protect From The Mal Vento (Bad Wind) That Can Enter The Belly And Cause Much Illness.Beverages Are Consumed Tepid To Protect The Belly.

  7. Becoming corn
    In Israel the bad wind is the sharav, it is a hot desert wind, and it is positively charged. And it makes everybody sick. But in Israel they sell negative ion generators, and they put them in their rooms, and cars. And they build water falls, and water fountains, that also make a lot of negative ions.

  8. Very educational. I enjoyed reading that very much. It’s awesome that u studied this as much as u did and. An leave an educated and rational explanation of the Mayan calendar and what is to unfold at the end of each baktun. What I liked most is the fact that they didn’t predict the comings as much as they recorded the past… Thanks for this post

  9. […] Prudence Rice’s geopolitical model for the Classic period Maya has so far not been accepted by many Mayanists (me included). Based on Postclassic and Colonial period sources she has, for the past decade or so, suggested that sites competed to have the right to seat a 13 k’atun cycle (what she terms a may-cycle, roughly 256 years). These were the major centers of the lowlands. Within their territories lesser sites competed to seat each k’atun. I believe she is correct that the k’atuns were politically important but I believe the 13 k’atun cycle is a Postclassic reorganization of an earlier system which more likely was based on the baktun, see my earlier post on this issue. […]

  10. It’s been a while since the official orthography of Seibal has turned to Ceibal, the correct word in Spanish. For Spanish speakers it is really annoying to see how the wrong orthography for the site has prevailed for more than a century.

    • Orthography is what I worry the least about but Seibal is how the site usually is being referred to. What annoys me is how the orthography of Maya names changes. Ahau and Ajaw, Uinic and Winik, etc. Sometimes words are spelled with ‘ and sometimes without. I care about artifacts and leave othographical problems to linguistics.

  11. Well, maybe it’s a bit too arrogant just to name sites, ceramic phases, and such without even consulting a dictionary to be sure that the name you are using is correctly spelled in the official language of the country you’re working at. We Guatemalans care about that. The former name of Takalik Abaj, Abjaj Takalik, was officially changed because it annoyed K’iche’ speakers. I know, it’s not big deal anyway.

    • I will continue to call the site Seibal no matter what you call me. Once people start to be upset by ortography from a “nationalist” or “ethnic” point of view I will remain “arrogant”.

      The site is called Seibal in English literature and since I write in English I will keep it that way since most people are accustomed to it. I would not demand a Spanish speaking person to change Estocolmo to Stockholm if that person wrote in Spanish.

    • YaxWitz, your post of November 23, 2012 at 09:56 seems to cast some light on origins of difficulties with orthography of place names in Guatemala. As you noted, the name of Takalik Abaj was changed *officially* to Abjaj Takalik, because the latter is the correct name in K’iche’. To judge by that statement, “Takalik Abaj” had previously been the *official* name of the place. Before that change was made, foreigners who had followed your advice and consulted dictionaries in the official language of Guatemala (Spanish–I found nothing readily available in any other language at would apparently have used the official place-name, thereby annoying the K’iche’.

      So there was a time, it seems, when a knowledgeable foreigner writing about Takalik Abaj would have had to choose between being unofficial and annoying. What should that foreigner have done?

      Of course there are similar difficulties with the name “K’iche’ “. Should that be “Quiche”, as many sources say? Which version is official, and is that official version correct according to said people group? And do all members of that people group agree? I know from friends who are linguists that speakers of Maya languages disgree on how to put their languages into a written form that’s based upon a European scheme, and uses a Roman-based alphabet. For example, books written in Maya languages a generation ago by Maya authors are now being revised to incorporate orthographical preferences of present Maya scholars.

      So, again, what is a foreigner to do?

      I hope you’ll interpret foreigners’ orthographical choices about Guatemalan place names in ight of the above.

      • I completely understand your point and I also understand that Maya orthography can be very problematic. I’m not an English native speaker, so I face the same challenges here in the U.S. I just wonder what would be the reaction of English native speakers if I spell Arisona instead of Arizona, or New LLork instead of New York in scholarly writing.

  12. No offense intended in my previous comments. My comment was in regard to archaeologist who name sites or ceramic types by the very first time. However, I have the feeling that from now on the name of the site will be spelled as Ceibal; these guys are also writing in English:

    • I have used the name many times before, it was not the first time. Btw, why are you not calling yourself YaxUitz? Or are U and W in Maya not as important as S and C in Spanish? Feel free to answer but I am done with this pseudodiscussion regarding and S instead of a C in the name of one Maya site.


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