Image: Maya king
Proyecto La Corona
A stone panel from the La Corona stairway shows a seated Maya king.
By Senior writer
updated 6/28/2012 3:35:32 PM ET 2012-06-28T19:35:32

A newly discovered Mayan text reveals the "end date" for the Maya calendar. But unlike some modern people, ancient Maya did not expect the world to end on that date, researchers said.

"This text talks about ancient political history rather than prophecy," Marcello Canuto, the director of Tulane University Middle America Research Institute, said in a statement. "This new evidence suggests that the 13 bak'tun date was an important calendrical event that would have been celebrated by the ancient Maya; however, they make no apocalyptic prophecies whatsoever regarding the date."

The Maya Long Count calendar is divided into bak'tuns, or 144,000-day cycles that begin at the Maya creation date. The winter solstice of 2012 (Dec. 21) is the last day of the 13th bak'tun, marking what the Maya people would have seen as a full cycle of creation.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

Some New Age believers and doomsday types have attributed great meaning to Dec. 21, 2012, with some predicting an apocalypse and others expecting some sort of profound global spiritual event.

Cosmic Log: Maya discovery marks time beyond 2012

The date was made famous by a reference to the 2012 date in an inscription on a monument dating back to around A.D. 669 in Tortuguero, Mexico. (Mexican archaeologists reported finding a second reference to the date last year, carved or molded into a brick at the Comacalco ruins nearby.) [End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]

Now, researchers exploring the Maya ruins of La Corona in Guatemala have unearthed another reference. On a stairway block carved with hieroglyphs, archaeologists found a commemoration of a visit by Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' of Calakmul, the most powerful Mayan ruler in his day. The king, also known as Jaguar Paw, suffered a terrible defeat in battle by the Kingdom of Tikal in 695.

Historians have long assumed that Jaguar Paw died or was captured in this battle. But the carvings proved them wrong. In fact, the king visited La Corona in the year 696, probably trying to shore up loyalty among his subjects in the wake of his defeat four years earlier. [See images of the carvings]

As part of this publicity tour, the king was calling himself the "13 k'atun lord," the carvings reveal. K'atuns are another unit of the Maya calendar, corresponding to 7,200 days or nearly 20 years. Jaguar Paw had presided over the ending of the 13th of these k'atuns in A.D. 692.

That's where the 2012 calendar end date comes in. In an effort to tie himself and his reign to the future, the king linked his reign with another 13th cycle — the 13th bak'tun ending on Dec. 21, 2012.

David Stuart, a professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin, recognized the reference to the date among 56 glyphs that were carved on the stone block. "It was a time of great political turmoil in the Maya region, and this king felt compelled to allude to a larger cycle of time that happens to end in 2012," Stuart said in a statement released by UT.

By referring to a date that seemed far in the future, Jaguar Paw was trying to place his reign and his accomplishments in a larger cosmological framework — in effect, emphasizing a big-picture view to divert attention from his recent troubles.

"What this text shows us is that in times of crisis, the ancient Maya used their calendar to promote continuity and stability rather than predict apocalypse," Canuto said.

Image: 2012 glyphs
Proyecto La Corona
The areas highlighted in red in the drawing at right, by University of Texas epigrapher David Stuart, show the date equivalent to Dec. 21, 2012, or in the Maya system 13.0.0.0.0 4 Ahaw 3 Kankin. The actual glyph is shown on the left.

La Corona was the site of much looting and has only been explored by modern archaeologists for about 15 years. Canuto and his dig co-director, Tomas Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, announced the discovery of the new calendar text Thursday at the National Palace in Guatemala.

The researchers first uncovered the carved stone steps in 2010 near a building heavily damaged by looters. The robbers had missed this set of 12 steps, however, providing a rare example of stones still in their original places. The researchers found another 10 stones from the staircase that had been moved but then discarded by looters. In total, these 22 stones boast 264 hieroglyphs tracing the political history of La Corona, making them the longest known ancient Maya text in Guatemala.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com. Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas  or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Video: 2012 cited as 'end date' in Mayan inscription

Explainer: Seven real-life archaeological mysteries

  • Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP file

    Hollywood's favorite archaeologist has chased around Egypt, India, the Middle East ... and the Amazon as well. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is loosely inspired by a supposed Mesoamerican legend that 13 widely dispersed crystal skulls will yield unprecedented powers when united.

    In real life, several purported crystal skulls are housed in museums around the world, though archaeologists doubt their ancient provenance and mystical powers. Instead, these skulls are primarily seen as fakes sold by 19th-century antiquities dealers to feed a market hungry for pre-Hispanic relics. Nevertheless, the archaeological mystery of the crystal skulls lives on. Skull hunters still search for them, and the Maya believe they hold special powers. In this picture, a priest hoists a skull in a ceremony at the Palenque ruins in Mexico.

    Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about six more archaeological mysteries.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Where is the grave of Genghis Khan?

    Japan-Mongol Joint Research Team via AP

    Where is Genghis Khan buried? Nobody knows. The bloody Mongol warrior became famous as the ruler of an empire that eventually stretched from China to Hungary, but he asked to be buried in an unmarked grave. According to legend, anyone who witnessed the burial party en route to the funeral in 1227 was killed, and then the soldiers and servants who attended the funeral were massacred. Thus, the grave site has been one of archaeology's enduring mysteries. But scientists may be closing in on the location at last. In 2004, they unearthed the site of Genghis Khan's 13th-century palace, which is pictured here. Ancient texts suggest the grave itself could be nearby.

  • What happened on Easter Island?

    Carlos Barria  /  Reuters file

    Hundreds of monolithic statues called Moai, including the ones in this picture, ring remote Easter Island in the South Pacific. They face inland from the shore, presumably keeping watch over ancestral lands. Scientists unraveling the mystery of how the Polynesian settlers moved the statues are also piecing together the tale of the settlers' demise. According to a leading theory, giant palms were hacked down to roll the statues into place beginning in about 1200. As the population swelled, more chiefs requested statues, and more trees were felled. Eventually the island was denuded. Easter Island's environment — and society — collapsed. Other researchers pin the blame on Europeans, disease and rats.

  • Was Stonehenge a place of healing?

    Scott Barbour  /  Getty Images file

    Every year at the summer solstice, thousands of people witness the season's first sunrise at Stonehenge, about 90 miles west of London in the English countryside. Was the monument erected beginning around 3000 B.C. for the secular purpose of marking time? Perhaps, some scholars say. Another prominent theory suggests it was a place of worship. The most recent idea holds that the monument was erected as center of healing. Archaeologists dug at the site for the first time in nearly half a century to get a precise date for Stonehenge's bluestones, which were thought to have healing powers. A close match with the time frame during which archaeologists believe the stones were taken from the Perseli Mountains, 153 miles away, could help confirm the theory.

  • Why were the Nazca Lines etched?

    David Jackson / NBC News file

    Hundreds of lines and figures etched into the coastal desert of southern Peru have baffled archaeologists for decades. The Nazca people made the playing-field sized etchings between 200 B.C. and A.D. 700 by removing rust-colored pebbles to reveal the lighter soils beneath. Some are simple shapes reminiscent of geometry class. Others are recognizable animals, such as the hummingbird in this image. But what do they mean? Theories proposed over the years have ranged from religious and astronomical purposes to guideposts of sorts for finding water.

  • What is China's terracotta army guarding?

    Image: Mars Polar Lander
    SACH

    In 1974, archaeologists found an army of thousands of terracotta statues standing guard outside the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di, the ruler who unified China in 221 B.C. The find ranks as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Each of the soldiers has a unique facial expression, and the troops are aligned according to rank in trenchlike corridors, accompanied by horses and chariots.

    As impressive as the army may be, scientists suspect that even greater treasure lies within Qin's unexcavated tomb. An account by an ancient court historian suggests that the tomb is full of miniature palaces, rivers of mercury and precious stones to represent the moon and stars. Remote sensing and nearby excavations have lent some credence to the writings.

  • How were the Egyptian pyramids built?

    Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP file

    The Great Pyramid of Giza near Cairo, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, retains its world-famous status in a 21st-century list of seven wonders. Its mystique partly rests in just how the 479-foot-tall burial structure was built. Most Egyptologists believe large stones were moved from a quarry and lifted into place, but how? Teams of workers could have dragged the 2.5-ton stones with brute force, or perhaps they rolled them on logs. However they did it, recent research suggests the workers were skilled, not untrained slaves.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments