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This is from the Febuary 2000 issue of Discovering Archaeology Magazine

[Fair Use: For Educational/Research Purposes Only]

Why We Survived Y2K

Perhaps the Fates Favor Someone Else's Calendar

I am writing these words in mid-October, wagering my time on the assumption that we will survive the doomsday scenarios of Y2K. If you are reading this, we must have made it across the "millennial barrier." But however it went  total world chaos or just a bump in the road  our species has persevered. We should be very proud of ourselves.

Of course, in just 12 years we face another apocalyptic test: the Classic Maya millennium, on December 23, 2012 (based on our Western Gregorian calendar). That's when the Maya calendar will turn over to all zeros by the long count. (By the way, the Maya use of the zero by at least A.D. 200 is one of their key claims to fame, since the zero was not introduced to the West until the insights of Aryabhata, a fifth-century Indian mathematician, reached Europe.)

The Maya millennium comes 5,126 years after the creation, which, by their reckoning, occurred precisely on August 11, 3114 B.C. But we probably shouldn't worry too much about this, since Pacal, the most famous ruler of Palenque, confidently predicted that his accession would be commemorated on October 15 in A.D. 4772 (Gregorian time).

We, like the Maya and probably everyone else, are always trying to predict critical turning points in the future so we will have time to prepare for them. Unfortunately, we're not very good at it.

The famous prophet Michel de Notredame (aka Nostradamus) was one of the best prognosticators. Born in France in A.D. 1503, during what has since been called the "Little Ice Age"  a time of stupendous weather upheavals and mass starvation due to crop failures  he made a name for himself by publishing a series of weather forecasts-cum-calendars called Almanachs. To add spice, he piled on predictions about the political and military climate, as well.

His tools for constructing visions of what lay in store for his world were astronomy/astrology, as practiced in his day, and recent history. Like the Maya and many archaeologists and historians today, he thought major patterns of the past would be mirrored in the future. His books were highly successful among the farmers whose lives depended on the accuracy of his predictions.

As much as they are talked and written about today, the master's foresights seem to have lost some of their vigor over time. In The Nostradamus Encyclopedia, the entry under Nixon's "Watergate" reads: "An old man is replaced and mocked by a foreigner, while his son's hands are mutilated and his brother betrays Chartes, Orlians, and Rouen." Huh?

Yet we want answers about our future today just as much as people clamored for them in sixteenth-century France. A more recent source of such wonderments was Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witness movement. He intuited that Christ had returned to Earth anonymously in 1874, and that in 1914 all sinners would be annihilated. At the same time, 144,000 of his most-ardent followers would be sucked into Heaven, and the rest of his flock would take over a cleansed planet. But 1914 came and went without so much as a hint of a "rapture." Russell didn't use astrology or the calendar in his prescience, relying instead on measurements of the Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. In 1915, he suggested the measurements might need rechecking.

Nowadays, many of us are relying on calendar dates to forecast the worst  or the best. According to an A&E Channel special on "the rapture," which many anticipate at the millennium, some Americans went to Jerusalem for the New Year, expecting to take a ride on the stairway to Heaven.

The problem here is that all of the world's calendars are only humankind's artificial constructs of time  and no one knows which one, if any, the fates rely upon.

Over the centuries and around the world, the exact moment of the transition from one year to another has been a mixed bag. In the Near East of 2000 B.C., the Babylonians celebrated the New Year  Akitu  at the new moon nearest to the spring equinox (mid-March). Their successors, the Assyrians, in the company of the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Persians, placed the beginning of the year at the autumn equinox (mid-September). The Greeks, until the fifth century B.C., recognized the annual transition on December 21. The Jewish religious calendar starts the year on the first day of the month of Tishri (September 6 to October 5 in the Gregorian calendar). Most of medieval Europe regarded Annunciation Day, March 25, as the beginning of the year.

The current Gregorian calendar (which dates to A.D. 1582) settled on January 1 as New Year's Day, a date certified by no less than William the Conqueror, who probably picked it up from the Julian calendar, which Rome validated in 46 B.C. But does William's chosen day have any significance to the pulse of cultural development and collapse?

The end of civilizations is hardly a rare occurrence  even though calendars rarely advise us when to expect change. Take the arrival of Cortez in Mexico. The Aztecs used more or less the same calendar as the Maya, and they were mightily worried that the end of each 52-year cycle might signify the end of the world.

The Mexica, as they called themselves, didn't have a leap year, so every half-century, for a few "black days," they would extinguish all fires, lock pregnant women away so they didn't become wild animals, and pinch children to keep them awake so they didn't turn into mice. But Cortez, who ended Aztec hegemony in Mexico, did not arrive during those black, end-of-the-world days.

All Aztecs were supposed to break all of their crockery during the black days to prepare for Armageddon. This custom seems like an archaeologist's dream, but I wonder if the best serving dishes weren't stored away, just in case the world didn't collapse. In fact, how many of us really believe that the end will come in our lifetime?

It will, of course, come during someone's lifetime. Archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute identified "engineered disaster" as a cause for the fall of ancient cities like Lagash in Iraq. In Mesopotamia, irrigation water would percolate down to the water table and, as a result, the water table, heavily laden with salts, would rise  a death sentence for most plants. Between 2100 and 1900 B.C., Lagash's farmers largely shifted from emmer (Eurasian wheat) crops to barley, which is more salt-resistant. But even barley can only take so much, and the end result was abandonment.

How about our modern society? What about global warming? Is it here or isn't it? There are scientific voices on both sides. Which do you believe and how do you respond? We so desire certainty but are always bedeviled by ambiguity. Y2K solved our problem and met our needs.

For more than two million years, humans have used their own creations  what archaeologists call "artifacts"  to deal with the immense uncertainties that surround us. In the last few decades, computers have become our artifacts of choice, and they have served us well. They have made us the first civilization in history to predict our own catastrophe and make absolutely sure that the prediction of disruptions  major or minor  came true. We are an amazing species. Hurrah, Y2K!

W.L. RATHJE, a Senior Editor of Scientific American Discovering Archaeology, heads the Garbage Project and teaches at the University of Arizona.

-- Zdude (
zdude777@hotmail.com), February 10, 2000


Great article, thanks for bringing it to attention! But "soft-core," as it were, psychological stuff. If anyone is interested in a more "hard-core" archaeological perspective on the collapse of civilizations, theres a substantial literature to be found.

I suggest starting with a book by Joseph Tainter, _The Collapse of Complex Societies_. (I believe it's in the Yale University series "New Studies in Archeology," published as I recall in the mid- 1980s.) A serious work, written in an erudite yet accessible style, and it scared me silly. Tainter attempts to explain in a comprehensive fashion why advanced civilizations collapse, over and over again through history (as noted in the article above, "The end of civilizations is hardly a rare occurrence...").

I am not an archaeologist, and I have no idea if his specific approach is "mainstream" at all, but its a general topic that apparently has gotten increased attention from respectable investigators over the past several decades.

--Andre in southcentral Pennsylvania

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@health.state.pa.us), February 10, 2000.

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