Most of us have forgotten hullabaloo around the end of the world Mayan calendar sensation that preceded December 21, 2012. In the months and years leading up to 12/21/12 there was pseudoscience, History Channel specials, and a bunch of talk about a coming cataclysm. Mixed in, though, was some actual archaeological science that was pretty interesting. We learned that the Mayan calendar responsible for the end of the world speculation did not actually mark the end of the world, rather it marked the end of a Baktun. Baktuns are Mayan Long Count Calendar periods of about 394 years (144,000 days).
To illustrate why the Mayan calendar was right about 12/21/12 we first have to provide proper context. Looking at human civilization in long form – from the rise of the “modern” human to today, you have to take a few steps back to see it as a whole. The long count – a little less than 400 years at a time – is a pretty good measuring stick of human eras. Day 1 of the Mayan calendar has been determined to be August 11, 3114 BCE of our conventional understanding. However, the calendar should not be viewed as a Nostradamus precision predicting device. Rather, each Baktun marks the end and a beginning of an epoch that ushers in defining alterations to human civilization that shape us. The turning of a Baktun seems to represent an “out with the old, in with the new” time period on the a scale far larger than even the world wars. Let me explain.
Working backward from 2012, we get the years 1618, 1224, 830, 435, and 41 A.D. (I hesitate to go back much further as historical records prior are much harder to date with certainty.)While the years themselves are of some importance, the main focus is on the larger context of what is happening in history around those years. In 1618 the Jamestown colony was gaining footing in Virginia in the new world. It would mark the first permanent settlement of Europeans in America. Basically the beginning of America, which some consider to be of historical significance.
Going back to the the previous Baktun, in 1224 A.D. the Mongols were on a rampage through the steppe heading east. After 1224 they crashed through eastern Europe. Genghis Khan dies in 1227, but the Mongol Empire continues to expand for nearly a hundred years. Never to be defeated, the mongols controlled large swaths of territory throughout Asia and mongol descendants even fought on horseback in World War I. The Mongols devastated nearly everything in their path when creating their empire. They killed so many humans that scientists measured a change in the carbon levels during that period.
In the Baktun beginning in 830 A.D., a little over 15 years after the death of Charlemagne, we see his Empire on the precipice of decline, but we also have the ascension of the Macedonian Dynasty in the Byzantine Empire. While western Europe suffered through what was known as the Dark Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire flourished during this period and much of the success occurred under the Macedonian Dynasty. This stretch of time also coincides with the Golden Age of Islam…which was ended by the invasion of the Mongols and ultimately the sack of Baghdad in 1258.
The year 435 A.D., while not being particularly notable, still centers on the decline and fall of Rome. The fall of Rome has traditionally been marked with the date of 476 A.D. Afterward, Europe descends into the Dark Ages culminating in the death throes of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne.
The year 41 A.D. a whole four years after the death of a one Jesus Christ actually marks the first open break between Rome and the Jews – a significant precursor to the rise and spread of Christianity. Once could make a case for this Baktun as the foundation of Christianity, ending amidst the fall of Rome. Two Baktuns’ prior to this, we get the year 747 BCE which falls right around the time that Rome itself was founded (several dates are given from various sources spanning from 753 BCE and 728 BCE).
It does not require much imagination to see how each Baktun coincides with major human events that completely alter the course of history, like the rises and falls of entire empires and THE two largest world religions by population (Christianity and Islam) and real implications for all of human history. A mere four years into the present Baktun – the 13th Baktun – we can already see what is going to determine the next major human epoch: Artificial Intelligence, virtual reality, and mobile technology. (Duh.)
What has yet to play out, though, is how each of these are going to affect our human civilization. Looking back, a case can be made for the end of 2012 being the line in the sand, a clear break from the past. I remember speculating during the 2012 hype that maybe we had hit a critical saturation point of humans owning smartphones and maybe that was what tipped the scales into the next era. But it could have been a lot of things. Companies and people had already begun executing meaningful advances in AI and VR prior to 2012, including IBM’s Watson computer winning on Jeopardy! in 2011. Now, in 2016 Google’s Deep Learning AI has just defeated 18-time world Go champion Lee Se-dol. Virtual reality goggles are slated to hit store shelves soon and the pre-orders are backlogged for months to come. IBM has begun running a number of Watson commercials on TV – a signal that big things are coming from the Watson AI and soon.
In the third month of the fourth year of the thirteenth Baktun only one thing is clear: nothing is certain and anything can happen. There’s no slowing down or stopping the breakneck pace at which the world is changing. Like our ancestors, all we can do is hold on to our quiet dignity and go forth with determination and a resolve to survive whatever this Baktun holds in store – if we can.