Unlocking the Mysteries of the Maya

This fall’s “Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History,” which includes a guided tour of HMNS’s exhibit, “Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History,” is a timely course considering recent interest in the Maya and their supposed predictions of the end of the world. Dirk van Tuerenhout, Ph.D., curator of anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and an instructor in the upcoming course, offers his perspective:

The Maya are a popular and somewhat mysterious topic right now. Why do you think the Maya are so compelling?

Maya calendarI often get the impression that the Maya were (and are) seen as pre-industrial, forest-dwelling, nature-respecting, flower-power people. They were not.

The ancient Maya are better described as one of many indigenous civilizations in the Americas. They were essentially Stone Age people, who lived in a very diverse landscape, developed the most advanced writing system in the Americas and had the longest-known history of all pre-Hispanic cultures. The earliest known Maya appear around 1500 BC, the last politically independent Maya kingdom submitted to Spanish rule in 1697.

However, the fall of the last Maya kingdom did not mean that Maya culture disappeared. There are still Maya communities that use a calendar with roots going back to pre-Columbian days, and thirty Mayan languages are still spoken today.

What is a common misconception about the Maya?

One misconception is that they made predictions about the end of the world. They never did. In fact, we know of only two ancient Maya inscriptions that mention a date that translates to December 21, 2012.

On June 28, it was announced that David Stuart, PhD, professor at The University of Texas at Austin and an instructor in our course, had deciphered a 1,300-year-old Maya text – the second known reference to the so-called “end date” of the Maya calendar, December 21, 2012. It is not believed to have been in reference to a prophecy about the end of the world.

The actual Maya ways of keeping time are much more interesting than what we are encountering in the current media frenzy.

So, it sounds like we’re not off the hook for holiday shopping this year, but there is still time to join us September 10-November 5 to learn about the fascinating beliefs and culture of the Maya. Register today gscs.rice.edu. See you there!

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