As the clock ticked down to midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, you may remember that people were worried about Y2K. But the same thing happened when the year 1000 arrived. And who can forget the 1997 Comet Hale-Bopp fiasco? Last year, the world was going to end on May 21. Oops, that is Oct. 21.
Throughout human history, someone has always had special insight to when life as we know it would come to a sudden and violent end. They have always had a following who believed the narrative. But why are the Mayans so special?
As with many ancient cultures, like the Egyptians, Babylonians and Chinese, the Mayans were skilled sky watchers, perhaps the best. At the height of that civilization from the third to the ninth centuries, several calendars were developed to measure the passage of seasons and years.
The Mayan long count calendar remains the most accurate timepiece ever devised. It accounts for the precession, or slow wobble, of the earth's rotation. This calendar measures five basic units of time. They are the regular day - a Keen; 20 days - a Wee-nal: 360 days - a Toon; 7,200 days - a Kahtoon; and 144,000 days - a Baktoon.
It has been suggested that the completion of 12 Baktoons from the creation date would close the fifth creation. According to the Mayans, a very precise creation date equates to Aug. 12, 3114 B.C. Doing the math, 12 full Baktoons takes us to exactly Dec. 21, 2012. This also happens to be the winter solstice, the darkest time of the northern hemisphere. One creation would end and lead to another - the sixth creation, obviously with some cataclysmic threshold in between.
Every 52 years, it was believed that existence itself would end unless the Mayan priests performed an elaborate sacrificial ceremony.
Dr. Michael Love is an anthropologist at Cal State Northridge and an expert on Mayan culture.
"The Aztec and many other Meso-American people considered the end of this 52-year cycle to be precarious, a time of danger. They thought the world would end at the end of one these 52-year cycles," Love said.
So, it wasn't only long epochs of time, but at least once every generation that the end might come.
"They would sacrifice a person, and they would rekindle a fire in the chest cavity of that sacrificed victim. Then all the household hearths would be relit from that fire," he described.
Life went on, one Kahtoon after another. The end of one cycle of time would be followed by another. But how is the end of the current Baktoon this year any different than passing from July to August?
"Nothing special about the end of the 12th cycle of the Mayan long count," Love said.
In fact, numerous inscriptions have been noted about a famous Mayan king Pacal who ruled during the glorious eighth century in what is now Guatemala and the Yucatan peninsula of southeastern Mexico.
"The fame of Pacal, it says that his coming was spoken of years and years ago, many cycles ago, and his fame will endure for approximately 6,000 years into the future. So it looks well beyond 2012," Love said.
For those still not convinced, Love believes there has been a cottage industry springing up around what is nothing more than a misinterpretation of the meaning of the Mayan long count calendar.
His advice: "Don't worry. Be happy."
Just like any ring, the circle on which this calendar resides has no beginning and no end. It is perpetual. But there will always be people who insist on seeing well beyond the current world. Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce and many others have proclaimed tantalizing things for people eager to hear them.
The end of the world is a very personal thing. it happens every day when a person dies. That is the end of their world. Sometimes it is collective, such as on 9-11 or when the Titanic sank 100 years ago.
But irrational and debilitating fears of mass extinction are fruitless exercises in hysteria, bringing no positive outcome. Perhaps the world will end in December. That is guaranteed for some.
Most likely, as has happened countless times before, the prediction will pass only to be followed by excuses of what went wrong.
If some don't live past this December, it won't be due to what Mayans carved on a rock 1,500 years ago. Looking for the apocalypse is like fast food. It's tasty but not very nutritious. If you are still worried, just remember how the last doomsday prediction turned out. You'll sleep better at night.