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Conference on Native Americans Looks at 'End of the World'

The National Conference of the American Society of Ethnohistory, or ASE, is taking place in Springfield this week. ASE is an academic society that studies the cultures and histories of people native to the Americas. KSMU’s Melanie Foehrweiser spoke with some visiting experts and has this report.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Apocalypse Now.” John Chuchiak is the conference organizer and the director of Latin American, Caribbean, and Hispanic Studies at Missouri State University.

“This is the impending end of Maya great cycle, 5,000 year cycle, that ends in December of 2012. In honor of that, that became the theme of this year’s conference.

However, speakers at the conference find little truth in the idea that the Mayans predicted the end of the world. Matthew Restall is the editor of the Journal of Ethnohistory, and is also speaking at the conference.

“Pretty much every single Mayanist…I would say 99% of anybody whose even remotely can claim to be a professional Mayanist…has pointed out over and over that the Maya did not actually predict that the world was going to end at all, let alone on December 21st, 2012.”

Restall says once the end of the world idea got out, it was too appealing for the public to ignore. He believes that much of this “2012-ology” was fueled by catastrophic events, like the tsunami and other natural disasters.

The Mayan “Long Count” Calendar, which was interpreted to predict the end of the world, was 5,000 years long and based on the Mayan system of counting. The calendar is centered around the figure 13:00.000 which aligns with December 21st, 2012. However, Restall says the calendar’s counting system is arbitrary.

“So it’s like an odometer on a car and all the zeros come up. 13 is a kind of a special number in Maya culture. So it’s the 13 and all of the zeros and go ah it’s the end of the cycle 5,000 years. And then it clicks back. Either you can add another digit on so there’s a one at the end or you can just start that 5,000 year cycle again.”

Restall says there's no evidence that the Mayans believed the end of a cycle meant something big was going to happen. He compares it to New Year’s Eve: one year ends and another begins.

Kevin Terraciano is the president of ASE. He believes that there has already been an apocalypse, but it went along with the end of the Julian calendar in 1582. It was at this time that western civilization began using the Gregorian calendar, which is still used today. Terraciano says that when this change occurred, there was already an apocalypse going on.

“Not an Apocalypse with a capital A, as in the Biblical Apocalypse, but an apocalypse in the sense of catastrophe. In the sense that already by that time, 1582, probably three quarters of the native population of the Americas had been decimated by disease.”

He believes instead of saying "Apocalypse Now," it should be “apocalypse then.” The apocalypse idea is not new, however, with theories popping up every few years about when the world will end.

“It’s a Western tradition…millenarianism…the idea of an end, the idea of judgment day approaching,” says Terraciano.

Terraciano dates this tradition back as far as 1492 when Columbus believed that his discovery of the Americas was proof that the world was coming to an end. Restall says that the end of the world trend is, in a word, never-ending.

“After December 21st passes, it’s just a matter of time before another date sticks. And tying it to the Mayan calendar was a really good sort of sticking.”

This is the first time MSU has hosted the ASE conference, and Chuchiak says that the Springfield region has a lot to offer in terms of Native American culture. He says representatives from the Delaware, Osage, and Creek Nations, which are all native to the Ozarks, will take part in this year’s conference.

The conference at University Plaza runs through Saturday (Nov. 10). For more information and a full list of events, visit our website,

For KSMU News, I’m Melanie Foehrweiser.

LINKS: ASE Website

Conference Program