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HOUSTON – Some might prepare for the end of the world by checking off items on their bucket list. But at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, curators are launching an exhibit designed to demystify the Maya and debunk the myth that the ancient culture predicted doomsday on Dec. 21, 2012.
Visitors will walk darkened halls lined with pottery, jade carvings and black-and-white rubbings of jungle monuments, all tied in some way to the sophisticated Maya calendar. They'll sit in replicas of large, mural-filled buildings that still grace the jungles of Mexico. And they should come away with at least one thought: The sun will rise on Dec. 22.
"The calendar is there, and it will continue, so nobody ought to be afraid of what Dec. 21 will bring because there will be a Dec. 22 and, yes, there will be a Christmas," said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of the "Maya 2012 Prophecy Becomes History" exhibit opening Friday.
Nearly every item on display circles back to the Maya calendars: complex, cyclical countdowns that helped an ancient people who dwelled in the jungles, mountains and coastal regions of Central America track crucial events -- especially the rain -- and build large cities, some with as many as 90,000 people.
The exhibit takes visitors back nearly 3,500 years. Murals carefully reconstructed by Yale University depict images in the jungle monuments in Bonampak in the Mexican state of Chiapas -- such as the Maya celebrating the induction of a new heir to the throne -- all on a blood-red backdrop. Stone carvings and rubbings depict anniversaries and special events. Replicas of large pyramids explain how the Maya tracked the sun's progress in the sky, giving ancient astronomers the power to know when the rainy season would begin and when to plant the corn.
The exhibit explains the calendars through videos showing the wheels introduced by Europeans to wed the Maya count with their own, as well as Maya inscriptions and writings. It shows how the Maya calendars -- while advanced and complex -- largely focused on the daily needs of a society by counting what we call days, months and years.
"So you could have time to get your festivals organized and your king ready to bleed and your sacrifices, so the astronomer actually controlled the timekeeping of the Maya," said Carolyn Sumners, the museum's vice president for astronomy, who helped create a 3D movie to accompany the exhibit. "The power of that priest and the power of that king depended on feeding these people."
The Maya did this with several calendars, each with a different count. The "ritual" cycle was 260 days long, the time between the planting of the corn, or possibly, the time from human conception to birth, experts say. They also had a 365-day calendar, similar to our own, and the two met once every 52 years, which also matched the average life expectancy of a person living at that time, said Rebecca Storey, an anthropologist at the University of Houston.
The king, however, needed a "long count" to create a legacy, Sumners explained.
It is this count, which begins with Maya creation and ends three days before Christmas Eve, that is the focus of the end-of-the-world beliefs. This count is broken up into 13, 400-year segments, or baktuns. The last one ends on Dec. 21, 2012, and the ancient Maya believed that on Dec. 22 they would start counting again from zero, Storey said.
The date coincidentally lines up with a rare event. In 2012, the sun will pass through the center of the Milky Way during the winter solstice, when it is at its weakest -- an event that occurs every 26,000 years, Sumners said. This connection, experts believe, might be behind some of the doomsday scenarios; however, there is no evidence the Maya were aware this astronomical phenomenon fell on the same day as the end of their long count.
"Most of the Maya scholars think it comes from the Christian West where the whole idea of doomsday and apocalypse is an important part of Christianity," Storey said. "It's mostly outsiders that have made that link that somehow the end of a time cycle can be a time of destruction."
The Maya ended their long count at 13 because it is, for them, a sacred number, Storey said. They believe the end of a count is a time of renewal, and this will be the theme of many of the modern-day Maya celebrations to be held in Central American cities on Dec. 21, she added.
In reality, the Maya did suffer an "apocalypse," said Sumners, but it occurred around 900 A.D., when the classic Mayan civilization collapsed. It appears years of drought had stopped the rain.
"The reason it was such a catastrophe for them, such a collapse that they never really recovered from, it was that they overbuilt," Sumners said. "They did not create a sustainable culture if the rains didn't come, and that's what we face today."