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Maya Calendar Explained, Modern Prophecy Revealed

Archaeologist Bill Saturno backed by a Mayan mural. Photo by Jaime Saturno.

If you’re worried about the”‘Maya prophecy” that the world will end on December 21, you should have been at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last week, where archaeologist William Saturno had good news for those concerned with the world’s survival (watch video above). Saturno gave insights into the Maya art world and explained how far from representing the end of time, their calendar is merely indicating the end of a cycle; much like how December 31 indicates the end of one solar year. Spectacular murals he found earlier this year give a colorful illustration of this point (See photos and learn more about the murals at Xultún).

As both a professor in Archeology at Boston University and an explorer in the field, Saturno has been studying the Maya world for well over a decade. In 2001, his discovery of San Bartolo in Guatemala made headline news as one of the oldest-known intact murals ever in the Maya world.

Excavations by archeologist Bill Saturno uncovered Maya murals in mounds that are thought to be residences dating from around 800 AD. The site is called "Xultun" and is located near Tikal in the province of Peten in northeastern Guatemala. Photograph by Tyrone Turner.


At his National Geographic Live event, Saturno shared his story about how he came to find this remote archeological site. What was originally planned as a 3-hour drive turned into a 3-day trek through the dense underbrush of the Guatemalan jungle. After running out of food and water, Saturno crawled into a looters’ tunnel to get out of the sun and cool down. There he saw a remarkably well-preserved Mayan mural, partially uncovered by the looters. “I just laughed,” Saturno says. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my god, this is an amazing discovery!’ And my second thought was, ‘And I’m going to die right here. I’m going to be the skeleton that Indiana Jones finds later in the movie.'”

While not as romanticized as the Indiana Jones movies, Saturno’s expedition to explore Maya ruins certainly had its share of mystery and near-death experiences. According to traditional beliefs, he did die when he went into that cave. As he entered the underworld, he was given sacred knowledge and allowed to return to bring that knowledge back to the Maya. “[Local Maya] told me they had dreamed of me often and that I would find other great things,” Saturno explains.

One audience member asked Saturno how he planned to celebrate the doomsday countdown on December 21. Saturno simply replied, “very quietly.”

National Geographic Live will also be presenting Bill Saturno at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA on May 19-21. Visit nglive.org for details.


  1. George Hardigan
    Midwestern US
    November 4, 2015, 6:19 am

    All of the doomsday predictors have one thing in common. They base their predictions on unreliable evidence. For example, just because the Mayan calendar ended on 12/21/12 why does that lead to the conclusion that the world will end on that date?? People point to the fact that many Maya calculations about time are accurate and because of that, all other predictions both specific and implied or deduced from their data must also be correct.

    I hate to tell you, that has no logical basis. Einstien was right about many things. E=mC², the famous Einstien equation was incredibly correct as were many of his other theories. Does that mean that EVERYTHING he said MUST be true? Because he is more contemporary, people can say, “of course not, that is silly.” However, because the Mayan information is incomplete and very old so if I wanted to sell shelters for the inevitable collapse of much of our world, I would create a mythology around the Mayan’s that predicts the apocalypse in about 2-5 years and start selling these shelters. It is nothing but a clever marketing scam.

    I totally believe that our world is heading for some very bad times and it may already be too late to take an alternate path to avoid the collapse or multiple collapses that cause massive problems. What I don’t believe is that anyone knows with any certainty what will fail. It could be a large Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the sun that blows much of our atmosphere off and affects the magnetic field that currently protects the surface of the earth from all the particles and radiation coming from the sun. A CME focused directly at earth would also cause enormous electrical activity from pole to pole and everywhere in between. This is how the power grid would be destroyed along with most electrical machinery.

    It could be a heavy heavenly body with sufficient mass to create an impact event that would cause so much heat and particles to be blown into the atmosphere that the earth’s basic geology would change. No more sunlight would get in and no heat could get out. We would cook initially. Most life would die instantly. Depending on the size of the mass that strikes the earth, all of the water could cook off. There is ample evidence that this is what happened when the age of the dinosaurs ended. A time referred to as the K/T boundary.

    My point is that with all of these possible ways for life to end, it is not a matter of IF it will happen but WHEN. I have little confidence that the Mayans had any way of predicting this. Currently, there is a special telescope in South America that scans for large bodies in space that are on a collision course with the earth. At this time, if a very large asteroid was on its way, there is little that could be done about it. In the not too distant future it is possible that if the entire planet united on a plan to divert the course of this asteroid, we could use the gravity of massive objects placed close to the path of it far enough away so that the path would be altered enough by the time it travelled to the earth. All of this is theory and would depend on the mass of the object approaching and what we could get up in space to affect its path.

    As a recent National Geo program said, we need to take our heads out of the bunkers to put off things we cannot possibly control and get busy on the things we can control like global warming and over-population. I couldn’t agree more. This is a common sense approach. The life as we know it on earth will end one day from a catastrophic event we probably haven’t even conceived of.

    Frankly, people that are building these shelters and hoarding food are contributing to the problem and the contractors that are selling these “solutions” are nothing more than con artists. Assuming that something does happen in our lifetimes, which is a wild guess. If you lived underground for a year, what do you think the world will look like if you survive to emerge from your cocoon?

  2. Tiaan
    South afrika
    December 18, 2012, 7:42 am

    I would like to inform everyone that the world wil not end on the 21 Desember 2012. In the bible New Testament the firat book Matthew 24 verse 13-14 says the world wil only end once every person in the world has heard about god. So it will still be a long time before the world will end.

  3. Lady
    December 13, 2012, 5:26 pm

    ^Where did the first two crazies come from?

  4. John.F.W
    December 12, 2012, 11:33 am

    On 22.12.2222 the life on earth will disappear.If you do not reduce the population of the world men will eat everything as food on earth.In the end men will hunt for men.So my fellow world inhabitants only one child , only one child.That is enough for a family.The population which this world can endure 1 billion , only one billion.we have 7 billion extra.No need such a great number of people in the world.

  5. Ima Ryma
    December 12, 2012, 4:35 am

    The twenty first of December,
    Two thousand and twelve be the year,
    A date – will the world remember,
    Or will the world even be here?
    The Maya calendar does end,
    The end of what the question be.
    Some say the sun by solar wind
    Will blow Earth from the galaxy.
    In that case most of life would stop,
    Cuz there’d be atmoshere no more.
    No more need to holiday shop.
    Peace on Earth cuz there’d be no war.

    December twenty second day,
    Will Earth be on its Milky Way?

  6. Daily Fiber Films
    New York, NY
    December 12, 2012, 3:25 am

    Loved this article! We make comedy videos and just did a “send up” of the Calendar’s misinterpretations. We’d rather people laugh than get agitated. Hope you like the comedy- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxLAhTbm_8E