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Apocalypse Not

Fox: No room for doom in Maya cosmology.

By Nathan Halverson

Who knew the end of the world would be so good for tourism? Hotel reservations in towns such as Flores, Guatemala, have been booked for months in anticipation of the December 21, 2012, doomsday predication based on a misinterpretation of the ancient Mayans' calendar. "I'm sure the temples will be full of people waiting to get struck by lightning or something," scholar Jim Fox says wryly. Fox, an associate professor of anthropology, is an expert on Mesoamerican languages.

The calendar is a mathematically complex system that measures cycles in increments of 13 days, 20 days, 584 days and more. Its longest measure is a 5,126-year increment that will conclude with this year's winter solstice. Its previous rollover occurred in 3114 BCE.

The Maya believed that when this long-form calendar rolled over, it meant some kind of upheaval in the world, Fox says, but not an end-of-the-world event.

In the 1980s, Fox and John Justeson, MA '74, PhD '78, MS '88, were instrumental in decoding hieroglyphs carved into stone temples in Central America. They showed that the hieroglyphs had multiple meanings and began translating the ancient symbols of jaguars and snakes into syllabic sounds and words still spoken in southern Mexico and Central America.

Fox is working on a massive database that will serve as a cross-referenced dictionary for all 30 Maya languages. His toil—whether the years of painstakingly documenting the nearly extinct Ayapa Zoque language in Southern Mexico, or the trek sweating in the Guatemalan jungle to photograph a single hieroglyph—comes down to one thing. "I just love it," he says. "There are so many wonderful things happening now in Maya research."

Nathan Halverson is a writer in San Francisco.


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