Carbon-dating of a structural beam from a Guatemalan temple confirms that the Mayan Long Count calendar did end on December 2012, leaving no room for further doomsday prophecies and miscalculations claims.
The Long Count is a complex system of bars and dots that consists of five time units: Bak’tun (144,000 days); K’atun (7,200 days), Tun (360 days), Winal (20 days) and K’in (one day).
The days are counted from a mythological starting point.
The Long Count proliferated to more than 40 different centers across the Mayan lowlands between 600–900 A.D. and was used to anchor major historical events in time.
However, those historic events comprising royal successions, rituals, victories and defeats, could not be precisely ordered by date as scholars were unable to set the date of the mythical starting point.
Indeed, the Long Count system fell into disuse before European contact in the 16th century, moreover the Spanish colonizers destroyed any evidence that could have helped correlate the Maya and European calendars.
“Many solutions to the problem have been proposed, employing a variety of historical and astronomical data,” an international team of researchers led by Douglas J. Kennett, professor of environmental archaeology at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.
However, “correlation constants can vary up to 1,000 years and remain controversial,” they said.
To place the Long Count dates into the European calendar in order to understand when things happened in the Maya world relative to historic events elsewhere, Kennett’s team turned to an elaborately carved wooden beam from a temple in the ancient Maya city of Tikal.
The carvings depict Tikal’s king, known as Jasaw Chan K’awiil. A related text describes his defeat of King Yich’aak K’ahk’ , known as “Claw of Fire,” from a rival kingdom at Calakmul.
Using a combination of high-resolution accelerator mass spectrometry carbon-14 dates and a statistical model of tree growth rates estimated from changing calcium concentrations, the researchers established that the lintel was carved sometime around 658-696 A.D.
The estimate closely matches the most popular method in use, the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson (GMT) correlation, initially put forth by Joseph Goodman in 1905 and subsequently modified by others.
According to the GMT estimate, the K’awiil’s victory occurred around 695-712 A.D. The date was determined in the 1950s by carbon dating on two other wooden beams from Tikal.
Kennett and colleagues believe the discrepancy between the two dates can be explained by the fact that the beam was taken from a tree called the sapotilla whose hard wood would have required years to carve.
The date of the Mayan battle would work like a Rosetta stone for the chronology of the ancient civilization.
“Anything that has a Mayan date on it, we can be more certain about what the European date is,” Kennett told U.S. News & World Report.
The finding confirms that climate change played a key role in the development and demise of the ancient Maya.
It also means that the end of the 13th Mayan Bak’tun really did happen last year — without any apocalyptic effect.
“The exact date when the Bak’tun changed is open to question, but we know that it was somewhere in December,” Kennett said.
Image: The elaborately carved wooden lintel from a temple in the ancient Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala, carries a dedication date in the Maya calendar. Credit: Courtesy of the Museum der Kulturen.