It is this count, which begins with Maya creation and ends three days before Christmas Eve, that is the focus of the end-of-the-world beliefs. This count is broken up into 13, 400-year segments, or baktuns. The last one ends on Dec. 21, 2012, and the ancient Maya believed that on Dec. 22 they would start counting again from zero, Storey said.
The date coincidentally lines up with a rare event. In 2012, the sun will pass through the center of the Milky Way during the winter solstice, when it is at its weakest — an event that occurs every 26,000 years, Sumners said. This connection, experts believe, might be behind some of the doomsday scenarios; however, there is no evidence the Maya were aware this astronomical phenomenon fell on the same day as the end of their long count.
"Most of the Maya scholars think it comes from the Christian West where the whole idea of doomsday and apocalypse is an important part of Christianity," Storey said. "It's mostly outsiders that have made that link that somehow the end of a time cycle can be a time of destruction."
The Maya ended their long count at 13 because it is, for them, a sacred number, Storey said. They believe the end of a count is a time of renewal, and this will be the theme of many of the modern-day Maya celebrations to be held in Central American cities on Dec. 21, she added.
In reality, the Maya did suffer an "apocalypse," said Sumners, but it occurred around 900 A.D., when the classic Mayan civilization collapsed. It appears years of drought had stopped the rain.
"The reason it was such a catastrophe for them, such a collapse that they never really recovered from, it was that they overbuilt," Sumners said. "They did not create a sustainable culture if the rains didn't come, and that's what we face today."