Skip to main content

The Maya collapsed - could we?

By Mary Miller, Special to CNN
updated 2:13 PM EST, Fri December 7, 2012
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
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT