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On 2012 and the Supposed "Disappearance" of the Mayans

A week has passed since the supposed "Mayan apocalypse" of 2012 and, just like other predictions of armageddon, the world remains.  But most charlatan prophets are able to survive the failure of their predictions by simply claiming they misunderstood their calculations or that the dates they provided were, in some metaphorical manner, apocalyptic.  Besides, two of the most significant new age gurus who were advertising 2012 as the end of the world (Frank Waters and Terence McKenna) are dead.

What made the 2012 phenomenon interesting, however, is that it was yet another new age appropriation of a non-European peoples' culture.  Like every appropriation (especially new age appropriations), this specific appropriation of the Mayan calendar was doomed to be inaccurate.  Not that the people who believed in the significance of 2012 really cared that Mayans were laughing at this interpretation of their calendar––this is because these are the same people who tend to believe that the Mayans "disappeared" long ago.

So the phenomenon of 2012 ties into the entire (and ludicrous) new age claims about the "mysterious disappearance" of the Mayan people somewhere around 900 AD.  Past new age guru James Redfield, for example, argued in The Celestine Prophecy that the Mayans disappeared entirely from this reality by vibrating their atoms and transcending the earthly plane––or some such nonsense.  And if the Mayans were so advanced that they left this mortal world for some god dimension then, I suppose the argument goes, we should treat their [supposed] predictions about the end of the world with great respect.

The problem, though, is that the Mayans didn't "disappear"––they still exist as a people with a distinct language and culture––so all this garbage about their supposed disappearance, a hallmark of new age literature and even some speculative fiction, is both silly and offensive.  Obviously the Mayan Empire fell, but to claim that the collapse of this empire also meant the disappearance of the people and the culture that informed this empire is like saying that the Italians disappeared when the Roman Empire collapsed.  Stretching this analogy further: simply because Mayan culture now has changed since [what we know of] it was practiced from when it was an empire civilization does not mean the Mayan people now are different than the Mayan people anymore than the Italians now are different from the Romans then… Of course they are different because it is a different time and humans are mediated by history!  Even still we understand that the Italian people of today emerged historically from the ashes of the Roman Empire, just as the Greek people of today emerged historically from the ashes of Athenian and Spartan society, and that the Romans and the Ancient Greeks didn't "disappear" in some mysterious sense.

Of course, the main reason nobody speaks of mysteriously disappearing Greeks and Romans is because of eurocentrism.  After all, Greeks and Romans are the mythic origins of Europe [mythic because Europe as an unbroken historical culture with its roots in Greece and Rome was, as Martin Bernal and Samir Amin have discussed, an ideological invention] so they can't have "disappeared".  But according to eurocentric logic, peoples outside of Europe cannot possess the heritage of ancient and complex civilizations.  Indeed, the same kind of logic was applied at one point of time (and by some racist antiquarian pseudo-scholars even now) to Egypt: European archaeologists and historians studied the pyramids and the great offerings of ancient Egypt and, because they could not accept that the [non-white] people living in Egypt now were connected to this past culture––because clearly only "advanced white people" could build pyramids and such––they invented all this garbage about a caste of caucasian Egyptians ruling over a non-white slave caste.  And the silly new age variant of this racist history, of course, was that the pyramids were built by aliens… because if white people weren't around to build these things then it must have been creatures from outer space!

The same logic applies to the Mayans.  A civilization that attained a high level of complexity long before the peoples in Western Europe ever built a single city has to be some sort of mystery; its people cannot be the Mayans of today but some vanished race invested with a secret knowledge.  The sheer racist ignorance of this assumption informs the entire new age discourse surrounding Mayans and their calendar.  And it is an ignorance not only because it is eurocentric nonsense but because it ignores the actual facts of history.

The Mexica [Aztec] Empire, for example, was arguably more advanced than the fallen Mayan Empire around the time of Contact––so advanced, in fact, that the conquistadors were shocked and, just like eurocentrists today, could not believe that non-Christian peoples were capable of building what appeared to be "cities of gold".  And though colonial apologists like to argue that they went into decline because of the "accidental" spread of small-pox [it wasn't accidental] or maybe because they already were in decline [and not made to decline through Spanish conquest], they do not assume that the Aztecs possessed some secret and mysterious knowledge that allowed them to build their mysteriously advanced civilization.

Moreover, just as the Roman Empire had preserved aspects of Hellenic culture, the Mexica Empire had preserved and synthesized aspects of Mayan culture.  In fact, they had libraries with Mayan texts––all of which were burned by the conquistadors when the Mexica culture was crushed.  Chances are, the supposed "mystery" of the decline of the Mayan Empire was discussed and possibly explained in the texts torched by the Spanish colonizers.  More importantly, since Mayan city-states still remained long after the collapse of the Mayan Empire, the city-state of Tayasal, for example, was thriving during the Spanish conquest––like the rest of the civilizations in the Americas, it was demolished and its people decimated.

And really, is the decline and fall of any civilization really that much of a mystery?  We do not speak of the "mystery" of the collapse of Roman civilization even though historians are still arguing over what caused its decline.  The Mayan Empire also "disappeared" after a long period of decline, just like so many ancient civilizations: simply because we cannot figure out the precise factors should not cause us to speak of disappearance––for to speak of disappearance is to also disappear the Mayan people still in existence.

Despite the fact that the decline and collapse of the Mayan Empire should not be treated as some great "mystery" where an entire people "disappeared", the mysteriousness is still prevalent.  Just google Mayan disappearance and you'll find innumerable crackpot sites claiming that anthropologists and archaeologists are still "baffled" by the supposed disappearance of the Mayans.  But just as December 21, 2012 didn't disappear the rest of humanity, the Mayans also are not disappeared and it is only baffling that the collapse of their ancient civilization is treated as mysterious in the first place.


  1. I'm glad you pointed out the Eurocentric presuppositions underlying this New Age bullshit. Many Westerners still seem to imagine their own history in terms of "translatio imperii" or a direct line of descent from the ancient empires of Greece and Rome, but the rest of the world is apparently marked by a continual decline into savagery or an absolute rupture or break with the past which then can be mystified and romanticized by irritating hippies.

  2. Maybe the Swedish blogger, archaeologist/mayanist Johan Normark could be of interest in this context? (Most texts in English.) He has written a lot about "the 2012 circus", Mayan archaeology and history, but also about philosophy.

    It is the Aztec sun stone in the photo, by the way.

    1. Thanks for the reference… And actually, that picture is not of the Aztec sun but the most famous stone version of the Mayan calendar. The Mexica did appropriate imagery from the Mayans, but the image in this entry is not of a sun but of the calendar wheel. Maybe the angle is weird, so it looks more like the sun, but it is not.

    2. Not to turn this into a who is or isn't right pissing contest (especially as this horse died two weeks ago now), but I do believe you are incorrect JMP. Though it's in black and white and photographed from a strange angle, speaking as an anthropologist specializing in central and north American indigenous cultures, and an indigenous person quite irritated by the 2012 apoc nonsense, I'm pretty certain that the pic you have up there is in fact the Stone of the Sun, or Mexica Sun Stone, excavated in the Zócalo of Mexico City, on December 17, 1790 and presently located at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico city. You can see better pics of it all over the net, like: (this one is weirdly side-ways)

      The actual Mayan calender on the other hand can be seen here:


    3. Your first link is the same as the image I posted, but with a direct angle. And I'm quite willing to defer to your expertise here, but is the first link also wrong? Because it is the same stone, just a weird angle.

  3. Although the theory that aliens built the pyramids is pretty dumb, I've heard similar things said about Stonehenge, so I wonder how much of this is racism/eurocentrism vs. how much of it is the work of "I Want To Believe" Fox Mulder types eager to believe in the fantastic. I myself used to believe in UFOs and alien abductions when I was a kid.

    If there's any racism involved here, I feel it's likely subconscious for the most part. The conscious thought is probably along the lines of, "Nobody can explain how they built the pyramids/Stonehenge/Easter Island, so it must have been aliens!" At least that's what the History Channel says. ;-)

    Now, you want to talk about racism? How many 9/11 conspiracy theorists have you talked to who spouted some variation of, "You really believe a bunch of ARABS who live in CAVES could pull something like this off with a pair of box cutters?"

    1. While it is true that people do say the same thing about stone-henge, most of the "they couldn't have done this" bullshit is aimed at non-European cultures. Moreover, abstracting aliens, there is an entire and well-documented discourse around the inability of non-whites to produce important culture. When it comes to the Egyptians, for example, the whole "white caste" theory was predominant up until the 1980s and is still popular for some Egyptologists. Martin Bernal talks about this in *Black Athena*. You cannot find even close to the same discourse around european groups, even when it comes to aliens. Speculation on aliens and Stone-henge is stupid, but it is incomparable to all the dismissals of ancient Egypt where there is massive historical records from a city-based culture with a written language, or incomparable to the belief that the Mayans vanished as a people.

      Your point in the last paragraph, of course, is spot-on. Truthers are extremely racist but refuse to grasp that what they are arguing is racist. As much as I dislike Baudrillard in general, the piece he wrote regarding 9/11 was dead-on when he argued that conspiracy theories would abound because Americans were so arrogant that, being impressed by the 9/11 attacks, they had to believe that only they were capable of doing it to themselves. Years back I was at a talk at a university where the speaker actually defended the 9/11 conspiracy theory and one of my friends, in the Q&A, questioned him about the intrinsic racism of the argument. Both the speaker and his defenders were very upset and didn't know how to respond.


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