There is a strong tradition of “world ages” in Mayan literature, but the record has been distorted, leaving several possibilities open to interpretation. According to the Popol Vuh, a compilation of the creation accounts of the K’iche’ Maya of the Colonial-era highlands, we are living in the fourth world. The Popol Vuh describes the gods first creating three failed worlds, followed by a successful fourth world in which humanity was placed. In the Maya Long Count, the previous world ended after 13 b’ak’tuns, or roughly 5,125 years.[Note a] The Long Count’s “zero date”[Note b][Note c] was set at a point in the past marking the end of the third world and the beginning of the current one, which corresponds to 11 August 3114 BC in the proleptic Gregorian calendar. This means that the fourth world will also have reached the end of its 13th b’ak’tun, or Mayan date 126.96.36.199.0, on 21 December 2012. In 1957, Mayanist and astronomer Maud Worcester Makemson wrote that “the completion of a Great Period of 13 b’ak’tuns would have been of the utmost significance to the Maya”. In 1966, Michael D. Coe wrote in The Maya that “there is a suggestion … that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [b’ak’tun]. Thus … our present universe [would] be annihilated [in December 2012][Note e] when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.”
Coe’s interpretation was repeated by other scholars through the early 1990s. In contrast, later researchers said that, while the end of the 13th b’ak’tun would perhaps be a cause for celebration, it did not mark the end of the calendar. “There is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy to suggest that they prophesied a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012”, said Mayanist scholar Mark Van Stone. “The notion of a ‘Great Cycle’ coming to an end is completely a modern invention.” In 1990, Mayanist scholars Linda Schele and David Freidel argued that the Maya “did not conceive this to be the end of creation, as many have suggested”. Susan Milbrath, curator of Latin American Art and Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, stated that, “We have no record or knowledge that [the Maya] would think the world would come to an end” in 2012. Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, said, “For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle”, and, “The 2012 phenomenon is a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in”. “There will be another cycle”, said E. Wyllys Andrews V, director of the Tulane University Middle American Research Institute. “We know the Maya thought there was one before this, and that implies they were comfortable with the idea of another one after this.” Commenting on the new calendar found at Xultún, one archaeologist said “The ancient Maya predicted the world would continue – that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this. We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.”
Several prominent individuals representing Maya of Guatemala decried the suggestion that the world ends in the b’ak’tun 13. Ricardo Cajas, president of the Colectivo de Organizaciones Indígenas de Guatemala, said the date did not represent an end of humanity but that the new cycle, “supposes changes in human consciousness”. Martín Sacalxot, of the office of the Procurador de los Derechos Humanos (Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, PDH), said that the end of the calendar has nothing to do with the end of the world or the year 2012.