The Final Frontier

The Mayan calendar was based on the assumption that the history of a people is finite. Our Roman calendar is infinite – and it might outlive our civilization.

We shared plenty of laughs over the past few weeks by pointing at those who proclaimed that the end of the Mayan calendar signaled the beginning of the apocalypse. I never met anyone who actually believed that momentous events would occur and that the world would end on Friday, but we were all convinced that such esoteric believers existed and deserved to be ridiculed.

But scientists were quick to tell us that the Maya didn’t expect catastrophe to strike on December 21st – which is slightly ironic, given that the Mayan civilization encountered catastrophe and decline much earlier and has long vanished. We still don’t know why the high civilization that arose in a region we now call Mexico designed a calendar of limited duration (the Mayan calendar eventually reaches an end point and starts anew). We do know, however, that the Maya were a bit too generous with the timing of their cyclical calendar. It outlived their civilization by hundreds of years.

When an infinite calendar system arose in Europe around 2000 years ago, many people did not believe in an infinite history of the universe. To the contrary: Christianity, the newly emerging religion, anchored its worldview with the apocalypse and Judgment Day. But the Roman calendar embraced early scientific thought (borrowing heavily from ancient Greece) and reflected an early modern understanding of the world. The world of the Roman calendar wasn’t limited by Christian teleology but instead rooted in reason. Its reference point was the universe.

Within our modern civilizations, an infinite calendar is normal. We believe in continuity and equate the apocalypse with the end of the universe.

But what’s a world, and what’s an apocalypse? By shifting our frame of reference, we might see worlds ending in everyday life. In a small town in Germany, December 21st 2012 marked the last day of coal mining after a century of industrial exploitation. Those affected by the closing of the mine don’t have much to laugh about ending a world at the moment.

Our “world” is first and foremost the environment we’re familiar with, that we can easily navigate, whose rules we know and within which we feel secure – until it collapses. If that’s our perspective, worlds end all the time. But we usually use a different term for the increasing destruction, fragility and uncertainty of our worlds. We call it progress. Because history keeps going on somehow.

The calendar of the Maya spanned five millennia. Maybe its inventors believed that 5000 years were sufficient to describe the world of the Maya – and they were quite right. Five hundred years ago, the landing of the first Spanish ships at Yucatan (a bunch of stranded sailors at first) rang in the final years for the Mayan civilization. By that point, their calendar had already run though 90 percent of its life cycle. Now, it has completed the cycle and returned to its beginning. But the world from which the calendar arose remains only in the form of ruins and relicts.

We sometimes say that December 21st resembled for the Maya what we see as the transition from one millennium to the next. But that’s not quite correct. The Mayan calendar was based on the assumption that the history of a civilization is finite – and history has proved the Maya right. Our calendar is infinite, but it remains to be seen whether it will still be used by a civilization from this planet when the year 6000 arrives.

Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Local is the new digital

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