Mexican researchers are to study the impact of apocalyptic interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar on modern-day Mayan communities, as in the recent US blockbuster movie 2012.
Experts will travel in March to southern Mexico and Guatemala to carry out research with priests in Mayan communities, amid fears that sects may capitalise on the theories to sway potential followers.
The recent movie directed by Roland Emmerich refers to Mayans and the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which was engraved on a stone discovered in Coba in southeast Mexico, and comes to end on December 21, 2012.
But the pre-Hispanic Mayan civilisation did not predict cataclysmic events for 2012, the Mexican researchers said.
"In the way of Mayan thinking, it's only a cyclical period which comes to an end. The Mayans never imagined it as a catastrophic date," said José Huchim, a Mexican archaeologist who is himself Mayan.
"It's worrying that they're giving another meaning to our vision, as Mayans, of ourselves," the researcher from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, who will direct the new study, said.
Mexico's Mayan population represents some 1.5 million, out of an estimated 110 million inhabitants, mainly in the Yucatan peninsula.
In Guatemala, Mayan descendants make up some 40 per cent of the country's population of 13 million.
None of the western interpretations of the Mayans - in books, websites and countless magazine articles - represent their understanding of the calendar.
The Mayans created it to note significant dates in their past and future, which they engraved on stones. The calendar has 13 cycles of 144,000 days, with the last ending on December 21, 2012.
"What the Mayans really predicted for that date was that a war god would come down to earth, but without any notion of the end of the world," said Guillermo Bernal, an investigator at the Centre of Maya Studies at Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM).
Mr Bernal said that the calendar anticipated another, 14th cycle, pointing to a pillar at the archaeological site of Palenque which cites a date further in the future: the birthday of a leader of the pre-Colombian city, in 4772 on the Roman calendar.
Mexican researchers will investigate how modern-day Mayan religious leaders are preparing for 2012, and whether they have been influenced by publicity surrounding the latest movie on the theme.
Their main concern is that religious groups may use the apocalyptic predictions to scare potential followers.
"There are recent examples of such uses by sects to incite collective suicides," Mr Bernal said.
The experts hoped the religious leaders would help explain how Mayans really see the change of cycle.
They lamented that western versions of the Coba Stone story were so removed from its Mayan meaning.
"Unfortunately, technology spreads these kinds of ideas more than the true ways of Mayan thinking," Mr Bernal said.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us