Skip to main content

The Maya collapsed - could we?

By Mary Miller, Special to CNN
December 7, 2012 -- Updated 1913 GMT (0313 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There are doomsday fears of Mayan apocalypse on December 21
  • Mary Miller: The world will not come to an end, but we have pressing challenges
  • She says the Maya ignored crisis, including depletion of natural resources
  • Miller: We have to confront our own problems, such as global warming

Editor's note: Mary Miller is the Sterling Professor of history of art at Yale University and dean of Yale College. She is a public voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

(CNN) -- On December 21, 2012, our calendar will align with the Maya date 13.0.0.0.0, completing a great Maya cycle of time.

There's been a lot of hoopla that we are about to face a doomsday -- better known as the Maya apocalypse. There are television specials and panic buying of disaster supplies in Russia, a reminder of the stockpiling that took place for Y2K back in 1999.

While the Maya date will coincide with the solstice, the shortest day of the year, will it also coincide with the end of the world?

Mary Miller
Mary Miller

I'm no seer, but I am confident that December 22 will see the dawn.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The ancient Maya of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras were close keepers of time. They charted every day, organizing them into 20- and 400-year periods. Using a base-20 counting system (ours is base 10) and zero, they easily calculated thousands of dates, some noting the existence of millions of years.

Why we're fascinated with the apocalypse

During the height of their civilization in the 8th century, the Maya recorded dates and deeds at dozens of city-states, from births and battles to the triumphant wrenching of trophies from enemies. Artists inscribed their signatures on painted pots and stone sculptures. Stucco inscriptions adorned monumental pyramids that crested over the rainforest canopy.

But to continue building ever grander structures, the Maya needed resources. Most of all, they needed timber to burn limestone in order to make cement. By the late 8th century, the rainforest was in retreat, fuel was scarce and recurrent drought led to desperation. Eventually, there was chronic warfare as well.

And so one of the most extraordinary civilizations came to a crushing halt. Small groups of desperate dwellers in some cities held out behind hastily thrown-up palisades. Elsewhere, foes burned enemy cities to the ground and smashed monuments, leaving them scattered across the surface to be found in recent times. Scrub jungle overtook what had been sparkling white plazas. Compact ball courts that had seen raucous competition of a team sport played like soccer went silent. Wildlife scavenged lavish furnishings for their nests and dens.

The reasons were many, and the outcome was shocking. The Maya civilization collapsed in most of its southern lowlands, leaving only abandoned pyramids in silent cities. This was the true face of apocalypse.

Did they see it coming?

Just a few years before the rot set in, Maya painters at the site of Bonampak, a small city in Chiapas, Mexico, covered the walls of a small three-room palace with extraordinary murals.

They painted more individuals -- men, mainly, but women and children, too -- than had been rendered before, numbering more than 250. They deployed more fancy pigments than had been used before, more than would ever be used again in ancient Mexico, some 47 vibrant blues, reds and yellows. The paintings reveal the social layers of courtiers and lords, musicians and dwarves, victims and their blade-wielding sacrificers. Musicians, singers and performers lined up to perform on plazas and pyramids.

None of these activities or materials was new, but what was new was the rapidly crumbling world around the Bonampak painters.

No one could change -- the paintings seem to tell us. The Maya ignored the crisis in front of them, instead dancing with great panaches of precious quetzal feathers on pyramids, as if the present would forever hold.

Now in the 21st century, perhaps we have also reached a precipice. Global warming is not just fearful thinking -- it's real. Weeks after Superstorm Sandy, scientists are now predicting the near-term and long-term effects of global warming as more dire that previously thought.

Some, perhaps like our Maya predecessors, would rather not see the writing on the walls of our flooded cities. The crises pile up in front of us, one after another, and we ignore them at our peril. Acknowledging and doing something about the problems in front of us seems hard. Give us more feathers. Build more walls. Stockpile canned goods and buy a generator.

As for December 21, rest easy. This day will pass as if it were nothing more than the Maya Y2K, the nonevent of the decade. We'll wake up on December 22, and the world will still be here.

And so will our pressing environmental challenges.

We need to make some hard decisions and resolve that we will confront our own brewing apocalypse before it's too late.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT