STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
Well, it is here. Tomorrow will be December 21st, 2012. Some believe it's the day the ancient Mayan civilization predicted the world would end. Most people do not believe this. And yet, this idea of the apocalypse has stuck, helped in part by popular mass media, including this blockbuster Hollywood film from three years ago. It was called "2012."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "2012")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This mass suicide (unintelligible) to the Mayan calendar, which predicts the end of time to occur on the 21st of December of this year.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What are the odds?
GREENE: Strange to hear about a date that is finally here. Well, to learn exactly what the Mayans said and to try and hopefully put your mind at ease, we turned to David Stuart. He's the man who cracked the code that was needed to read Mayan hieroglyphics, and he joined us from Austin, where he's director of the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas.
Professor, thanks for coming on.
DAVID STUART: Hey, thanks for having me.
GREENE: Well, I guess, let me turn to a question that, in thinking about it, seems to carry some level of importance. Is the world going to end tomorrow?
STUART: Absolutely not.
GREENE: That's a relief.
STUART: Yeah. And thanks for playing that clip, by the way. You know, the Maya never, ever, said anything about the world ending at any time, much less, you know, this year. So it's sort of bizarre to be living through this time right now, when, you know, so many people seem to be worked up. And, you know, maybe they don't even understand anything about the Maya, but they still wonder: You know, where is this idea coming from?
GREENE: The Mayans never said anything about this. Where in the world did this idea come from, then? I mean, we've got a lot going on in the world.
STUART: Yeah. No, they never said...
GREENE: The Russians are freaking out. All sorts of countries are preparing for the end.
STUART: Right. It's global now, right. The Maya never said anything about the world ending. What's happening, basically, is that we have an important cycle of the Maya calendar which is turning over, a cycle called a baktun. And there are lots of cycles to the Maya calendar. And it's a big deal if you're an ancient Maya astronomer-priest. But apart from that, you know, they didn't say anything about what's going on, what will be happening.
GREENE: Well, I read about some monument. Did someone see something there that made them at least think that this end is possible?
STUART: Well, there's a site, a ruin, in Mexico called Tortuguero. And one inscription from there actually mentions the year 2012. And there's another one we found, actually, this year, the site in Guatemala that also mentions December the 21st, 2012. But there is no prophecy on either of those ancient texts.
What they're doing is they're just projecting forward to the end of this big cycle, because the ancient Maya were really into time. They were really into connecting their kings to these bigger cycles, these bigger kind of cosmic cycles. And, you know, that's really what it's all about. It's about ancient Maya politics when you come down to it, right. It's not about them predicting anything good or bad about our world.
GREENE: But where did the idea that this turn in the calendar was going to be the end of the world exactly come from?
STUART: It comes more from our culture. As far as we can trace it, you know, it goes back to, really, some ideas that started to get published in the 1960s with the beginnings of the New Age movement.
But I think in our culture, too, you know - or maybe globally - humans like to come up with excuses, sometimes, just to freak out, you know, and to have these ideas. You know, they crop up all the time. And this will not be the last one. There will be another one at some point. I think the Maya have become an excuse for something a bit larger that's, you know, way outside my area of expertise.
GREENE: Well, you definitely have me feeling a lot better, and I'm sure a lot of other people, too. And you have plans for the 21st, right? You're going to be traveling?
STUART: Yeah. I'm going to be Christmas traveling, holiday traveling. So I'll be on a plan, actually, from Boston, back to Austin with my son on the 21st. I'll be here in Austin that night, and probably raise a glass of wine to the end of the baktun and the beginning of a new one.
GREENE: Professor Stuart, thank you. Thanks for talking to us about this.
STUART: No problem. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Professor David Stuart. He's director of the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas in Austin.