Around this time last year, news channels were awash with stories about the world’s imminent demise on December 21. The long count Maya calendar was coming to the end of a cycle, and fearmongers weren’t about to pass up an opportunity to spread messages of doom and gloom.
You might even remember where you were when it was all supposed to go kaput. I was on a long-haul flight, chatting merrily with fellow passengers about the relative advantages of being in the air come the apocalypse. The superstitious and anxiety-prone were no doubt hastily stocking up on canned food, padlocks and crossbows, just in case they survived.
Experts busily refuted rumours of asteroids and rogue planets hurtling towards Earth. NASA even released a news item on the December 21 phenomenon, mostly based on an interview with “hard-nosed scientist” Dr. John Carlson, a radio astronomer. After brushing aside as a misconception the notion that the Maya ever predicted the end of the world, he went on to provide plenty of other reasons why we should be interested in this ancient civilization. The Maya mastered astronomy, developed an elaborate written language, and Carlson describes their long count calendar as the most complex calendar system ever developed.
If the passenger sitting next to me on that December 21 flight had been UBC alumnus Marc Zender, I would have come to realize that what we actually know about the Maya is a lot more interesting than superstitious claptrap. Zender is an archaeologist and world expert at deciphering ancient Mayan script. As artefacts are pulled from the earth at the sites of ancient cities in Mexico and Belize, he helps to decipher their significance and piece together the lives of the people they belonged to. We don’t have all the answers yet, but the journey is a fascinating one.
We humans spend much time and effort trying to reach and explore places we’ve never been – yet there is still much be learned from where we have already been, and a lot to be rediscovered that has long been forgotten. In much the same way as a new scientific discovery forces us to adjust prevailing theories about the world around us, discoveries about our past change the way we see our own evolution to the present and help us to better anticipate our future. And I’m not talking about asteroids.