Image: Maya ceremony
Luis Perez  /  AFP - Getty Images
Two Maya priests hold a water blessing ceremony at the Noc Ac cenote — a natural deep deposit of water — in the Mexican town of the same name on Saturday. The ceremony was part of a Maya cultural festival to celebrate the end of a cycle in the Maya Long Count calendar, and the beginning of a new era.
By
updated 12/16/2012 12:50:09 PM ET 2012-12-16T17:50:09

Amid a worldwide frenzy of advertisers and new-agers preparing for a Maya apocalypse, one group is approaching Dec. 21 with calm and equanimity — the people whose ancestors supposedly made the prediction in the first place.

Mexico's 800,000 Maya Indians are not the sinister, secretive, apocalypse-obsessed race they've been made out to be.

In their heartland on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, the Maya continue their daily lives, industriously pedaling three-wheeled bikes laden with family members and animal fodder down table-flat roads. They tell rhyming off-color jokes at dances, and pull chairs out onto the sidewalk in the evening to chat and enjoy the relative cool after a hot day.

Many still live simply in thatched, oval, mud-and-stick houses designed mostly for natural air conditioning against the oppressive heat of the Yucatan, where they plant corn, harvest oranges and raise pigs.

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When asked about the end next week of a major cycle in the 5,125-year Mayan Long Count calendar, a period known as the 13th Baktun, many respond with a healthy dose of homespun Maya philosophy.

"We don't know if the world is going to end," said Liborio Yeh Kinil, a 62-year-old who can usually be found sitting on a chair outside his small grocery store at the corner of the grassy central square of the town of Uh-May in Quintana Roo state. "Remember 2006, and the '6-6-6' (June 6, 2006): A lot of people thought something was going to happen, and nothing happened after all."

Reflecting a world view with roots as old as the nearby Ceiba tree, or Yax-che, the tree of life for the ancient Maya, Yeh Kinil added: "Why get panicky? If something is going to happen, it's going to happen."

A chorus of books and movies has sought to link the Maya calendar to rumors of impending disasters ranging from rogue black holes and solar storms to the idea that the Earth's magnetic field could "flip" on that date.

Image: Maya display
Orlando Sierra  /  AFP - Getty Images
Students learn about the Maya at the Museum of National Identity in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Friday. The beginning of a new Maya era on Dec. 21 will be marked with celebrations throughout southern Mexico and Central America. Honduras is one of five countries preparing to observe the date.

Archaeologists say there is no evidence the Maya ever made any such a prophecy. Indeed, the average Maya probably never used the Long Count calendar, neither today nor at the culture's peak between the year 300 and 600. The long count was reserved for priests and astronomers, while Maya villagers typically measure time as farmers tend to do — by planting seasons and monthly lunar cycles.

Maya priests, or shamans, at the temple of the Talking Crosses in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto say they don't know when, or if, the world will end. The church was the focus and last bastion of the 1847-1901 Maya uprising in Mexico and perhaps the most sacred site for average Maya. Its name comes from the conspirators who hid behind the crosses and whispered instructions to incite the revolt.

Maya priest and farmer Petronilo Acevedo Pena says God may punish humanity someday, because people have stopped going to church.

"When people planted their corn fields 50 years ago, everybody from all the towns around would pray" for good harvests, he said. "But when the government started giving out aid, seeds and fertilizer ... what do the people do now? They go to the government to ask for help."

"The world is going to end, but we don't know when it will end, nobody ever gave a date," said Acevedo Pena. "They said it would be in 2000, but nothing happened."

Doomsday ads
Still, advertisers are running wild with the doomsday theme.

One beer-company billboard near the resort of Tulum proclaims, "2012 isn't the end, it's just the beginning — of the party!"

The Mexico subsidiary of Renault is running "end of the world" promotions with interest-free loans for car sales: "Given that the world is ending, we're ending interest rates!"

Image: Tourists
Israel Leal  /  AP
A man dressed as a Mayan warrior delivers a life certificate for $1 million, to be paid in case the world comes to an end, to tourists posing for a photo at the Xcaret theme park in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, on Saturday.

Oprah Winfrey's website got into the act by publishing a list of "Apocalypse Dinners." It says: "Whether the world is really ending or whether you're just having a busy week, these six make-ahead meals from cookbook author Lidia Bastianich freeze well and feed many."

The Caribbean coast resort of Xcaret issued "million-dollar reward" certificates for anybody who survives the end of the world. "In case the world ends on Dec. 21, 2012, the beneficiary must be in Xcaret the day after the cataclysmic event with a valid photo ID in order to request payment," the certificate reads. "In case the world comes to an end, the beneficiary will be fully responsible for repopulating the world."

Sandos Hotels and Resorts, a Spanish-owned all-inclusive resort chain, is promoting a "New Era" celebration at its Sandos Caracol hotel in Playa de Carmen, near Tulum. "We invite guests to celebrate a transition to the beginning of what we, and many Mayan leaders and scholars hope will evolve into a new era of environmental sustainability and cultural consciousness," the hotel's website says.

New Age expectations
Expectations are also running high in New Age circles.

Shantal Carrillo helps her mother, The Venerable Mother Nah-Kin, run the Kinich-Ahau spiritual center in Merida, and hopes to lead hundreds of people in an energy-renewing ceremony at the "dawn of the new era" at the Maya ruins of Uxmal. They hope Uxmal, whose rounded-edge pyramid is unique in the Maya world, will act as an "antenna" for cosmic energy.

"We have performed ceremonies for many years to reactivate the pyramid at Uxmal as an antenna, because it had been unused for many years," said Carrillo, who expects Dec. 21 "to give the world an injection of this energy" by having hundreds of people hold hands at the foot of the pyramid.

It's unclear whether archaeological authorities will allow such ceremonies.

Jose May, of the Merida tourism office, expects all of the city's hotel rooms to be full Dec. 21.

"I'm worried that there are going to be more people than (hotel) rooms," he said. "The people who are coming are basically spiritual, and that could be a problem as well, because those people like to form circles to receive energy, and there is no way to reserve space for that kind of thing at the ruin sites."

Moises Rozanes, who runs the run-down Hostal Zocalo in an old building on Merida's main square, says he once saw a flying saucer and spoke with an extraterrestrial who identified himself as Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec equivalent of the chief Maya god, Kukulkan, the bringer of wisdom.

Image: Countdown
Israel Leal  /  AP
Tourists get their picture taken next to a slab of stone counting down the days until Dec. 21, 2012 at the Xcaret theme park in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, on Saturday.

He "told me the world was going to change, but he didn't say when," Rozanes said, recalling the 1997 encounter. He doesn't know what's going to happen Dec. 21, but is happy his hotel is getting business. "Everything's filling up" as far as bookings for the date, he said.

In all the fervor, Mayas rely on an ancestral calm built of good humor, calmness and the fact that it's too hot to get all worked up about things.

More about 12/21/12:

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Explainer: The 2012 Weird Science Awards

  • Our annual Weird Science Awards pay tribute to the strangest scientific tales of the past year, and you just know the 2012 edition had to be a doozy. While we're waiting for the Maya apocalypse — and we may be waiting a long, long time — let's count down the top 10 Weird Science stories, as determined by an ironically unscientific Live Poll.

    No. 10 is the discovery that having a painful need to urinate can impair your judgment. "When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can't stand it anymore, it was like being drunk," says Brown University neurologist Peter Snyder. "The ability to hold information was really impaired." To say nothing of the ability to hold water.

    The research won Snyder and his colleagues a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes, which honor science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think. Watch Snyder explain the study in this YouTube video, then click the "Next" button for more laugh-provoking science — or scroll quickly all the way down to the bottom if you have a painful need to go.

    — Alan Boyle, msnbc.com science editor

  • 9. Flies hooked on meth ... and sugar

    Image: Fruit fly
    Botaurus via Univ. of Illinois
    Researchers have found that the fruit fly is a useful model organism for studying the whole-body effects of methamphetamine exposure.

    When researchers noticed that meth addicts often take in large amounts of sugary drinks, they decided to do a little experiment: First, they got fruit flies hooked on methamphetamine. Then the scientists fed some of the flies a diet heavy on trehalose, an insect blood sugar. They found that the sugar-gobbling flies outlived the flies who didn't get the sweet stuff. Maybe sugar metabolism plays a role in meth's toxic effects. "Hopefully, some of these insights might lead to opportunities to deal with the problems associated with the drug," says University of Illinois toxicologist Barry Pittendrigh. But more research is required to trace the effects on mammals. In the meantime, watch out for those meth-head fruit flies.

  • 8. Monster pictures make a splash

    Courtesy of Discovery News
    A photo from a video that claims to show Alaska's own version of a sea monster.

    2011 saw a double-header (so to speak) in the marine-monster category. The most popular Loch Ness monster-like picture came from Alaska, where Andy Hillstrand of the "Deadliest Catch" TV show captured the footage for the Discovery Channel. Some might suggest that the creature is an eel, or a fish, or even a trick of light on the water. Not Hillstrand. "I've never seen anything like it," he told Discovery News. He suspects that the picture shows a Cadborosaurus, a legendary beast that has long been said to frequent Alaska's waters. Meanwhile, another picture purporting to show a creature that's been nicknamed "Bownessie" made waves in England.

  • 7. Glowing dog has an on-off switch

    Image: Glow-in-the-dark paw
    Lee et al. / Genesis
    Photos demonstrate the inducible glow-in-the-dark effect in a genetically modified dog: The left images shows the dog's paw in normal light (upper left) and under ultraviolet light (lower left) after doxycycline is added to the dog's food. The right-hand images show the dog's paw in normal and ultraviolet light after scientists stopped administering the drug.

    In past years, our Weird Science Award winners have included glow-in-the-dark kitties and glow-in-the-dark puppies. How could scientists possibly top that? Would you believe a dog with a gene that turns the fluorescence under UV light on or off, depending on whether a particular drug is added to its food? That's exactly the kind of dog that South Korean scientists produced in 2011. Why, you ask? Well, the ultimate aim of these glow-in-the-dark exercises is to splice in genes that can help treat diseases — and having an on-off switch would give physicians more control over the treatment. That feat would make other researchers turn green ... with envy.

  • 6. Just this once, Samoa skips a Friday

    Image: (FILE PHOTO) Samoa Cancels December 30th As Islands Skip Over The International Dateline
    Hannah Johnston  /  Getty Images
    Samoa and New Zealand-administered Tokelau skip a day as they jump over the international date line in an attempt to improve trade and tourism.

    For more than a century, Samoa was on one side of the International Date Line, and Australia and New Zealand were on the other. When the Samoans were at Sunday church, the Aussies were starting their business week on Monday. And when Samoa was trying to finish up its own business week, the Kiwis were settling into the weekend. To remedy that, the Samoans switched over to the Australia-New Zealand side in 2011, going directly from Thursday, Dec. 29, to Saturday, Dec. 31. To top it all off, workers were paid for the non-existent Friday. If only we could all get to the weekend that quickly ... and spend it on a tropical island.

  • 5. Pole shift forces airport makeover

    Might as well face reality: Shift happens. Earth's shifting magnetic poles are not a sign of the apocalypse. They're just a fact of life on our dynamic planet. We do have to cope to the shift that life throws at us, though. For example, in early 2011, Tampa's airport had to repaint the numbers on its runways to reflect their shifting orientation with respect to magnetic north. The good news is that even dramatic changes in the poles' position would have no effect on life on Earth, despite what the doomsday prophets say.

  • 4. Corpse-dissolving machine invented

    "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Does that old saying apply to building a better corpse-dissolving machine as well? Resomation Ltd. hopes so. The Scottish company installed its machine in a St. Petersburg, Fla., funeral home and hopes the system will be legalized in other jurisdictions. The alkaline hydrolysis unit liquefies a body's soft tissues and flushes the sterile liquid into the municipal water system. The bones and other hard parts are left behind to be crushed. Company founder Sandy Sullivan says the machine lets people express their environmental concerns "in a very positive and I think personal way." Sounds good, as long as they don't put a Soylent Green factory next door.

  • 3. Preacher gets doomsday wrong ... twice!

    First, figure out exactly when Noah's Ark was floated by the Flood, and exactly when Jesus was crucified. Then come up with an arcane biblical numerology to add 7,000 years to the former, and 722,500 days to the latter. That was California preacher Harold Camping's formula for determining that May 21 was the date for the beginning of an apocalyptic Rapture. When May 21 didn't work out, he said Oct. 21 was the fallback date for the end of the world. And when that didn't work out ... well, now Camping says he's rethinking this whole doomsday business. But what about the 2012 apocalypse? That's too kooky, even for Camping. "Mr. Camping does not believe the Mayan calendar holds any significance at all," a spokeswoman says. Camping's mathematical acumen earned him a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes.

  • 2. 'Aflockalypse' is for the birds

    Image: A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas,
    Warren Watkins/The Daily Citizen  /  EPA
    A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas.

    The year 2011 was rung in with a series of reports about mass die-offs, involving blackbirds (the so-called "Aflockalypse" in Arkansas), fish, crabs and other creatures. Some wondered whether a global environmental crisis was in the offing, but experts said the Aflockalypse was simply a case of people connecting the dots between unrelated events, facilitated by global communication systems. Die-offs can happen for a variety of reasons. The Arkansas blackbird deaths, for example, took place after the birds were spooked by New Year's Eve fireworks. And wouldn't you know it? The Aflockalypse happened again to kick off 2012.

  • 1. Fungus turns ants into zombies

    David P. Hughes
    A dead ant, after being zombified by a species of parasitic fungus. The brain-controlling fungus turns ants into zombies that do the parasite's bidding before it kills them.

    If books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and video games like "Resident Evil" can generate billions of dollars in sales, it shouldn't be surprising that the top Weird Science honors go to a story about zombie ants being taken over by a brain-controlling fungus. The fungus apparently uses temperature cues to decide when to have the ant clamp down on a cool leaf with a death grip. Pennsylvania State University's David Hughes speculates that the fungus does its thing to ensure it "has a long cool night ahead of it, during which time it can literally burst out of the ant's head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk." It's the perfect plot for a horror movie directed by one mean mother: Mother Nature.

  • Honorable (?) mention

    Other weird tales that almost made the top 10:

    Does 13th zodiac sign mean your horoscope is wrong?
    Was the Shroud of Turin created in a blinding flash?
    Science reveals how to win at 'Rock, Paper, Scissors'

    Previous Weird Science winners:

    Cricket testicles and 2011's other Weirdies
    Kinky fruit bats and other Weirdies from 2010
    2,700-year-old marijuana and other 2009 Weirdies
    Glow-in-the-dark kitties and other Weirdies from 2008

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