In fact, anthropologists aren't even sure whether the end of the Mayan calendar falls on Dec. 21, or whether it's already happened or is still to come, Braswell said. The date is mentioned in only two known cases, including an etching that says nine gods will descend from heaven to Earth. The verb describing what the gods will do is illegible in the etching.
"It probably was a ritual of some sort, and even if we had the glyph we wouldn't understand what it is," Braswell said. "What we know for sure is there's no discussion of the end of the world on that date."
The mystery isn't only inspiring dread: Some are whipping out their yoga tights and meditation cushions and joining a global counter-movement promoting the date as the start of a new era of hope.
Thousands of New Age adherents are expected to fill ancient sites across Mexico in the days leading up to Dec. 21, while their spiritual brethren party in hotspots as diverse as Culver City, Calif., and Byron Bay, Australia.
One of the biggest movements is Birth 2012, which is using the Mayan date to launch what it hopes will be a global spiritual reset. Some 40 events around the world will mark the change.
"We've activated this campaign for three days of love," said movement co-founder Stephen Dinan. "Let's have generosity and kindness be the operative fare, rather than people hunkering down in fear."
In Mexico's Mayan heartland, nobody is preparing for the end of the world; instead, they're bracing for a tsunami of spiritual visitors of the terrestrial variety.
Hotels near the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza have been sold out, with many rooms booked a year in advance. Volunteers at the Kinich Ahau center — dedicated to spreading the "authentic wisdom of the Maya" — were busy chopping resinous wood to mix with incense for a sacred fire ceremony to greet visitors from around the world. Mass tribal drumming, circles of energy and ritual dancing were also planned.
For Esquivel and other modern-day Maya, Dec. 21 is a chance to raise awareness about rescuing the planet, not prepare for its demise. People all over the world need to focus on the very real damage people have done to the Earth, he said, and sound the alarm about growing catastrophes, such as climate change.
"We're putting in danger the existence of our world," Esquivel said. "It's our goal for this date to create consciousness about our Earth. We want to say to everybody that the Maya live and we want to gather our strength to save the Earth."
Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris, Max Seddon in Moscow, Garance Burke in San Francisco, Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and AP news researcher Flora Ji in Beijing contributed to this report.