If the Maya were here, they wouldn’t tell people to hide under the table fearing an apocalypse or to stand around waiting for enlightenment, Barnhart said.
“They would tell us that this is the time to take some agency in our life and change what’s already broken before it breaks us.”
He told a crowd of about 150 in the Nebraska Union’s Centennial Room he used to only speak to crowds of 10 about his work with Maya archaeology. But everyone loves apocalypses, he said.
UPC even took an apocalyptic poll on Election Day.
While voting booths for federal and local officials were set up in the Nebraska Union Square on Tuesday, 64 people voted in a UPC poll on how they thought the world would end. The choices were a Maya apocalypse, zombies or mass insanity.
Chandler Sanders, a junior interior design major, helped with the booth Tuesday.
Sanders said she would vote for mass insanity. If there were zombies, mass insanity would happen, too, she said.
Mass insanity won with 30 votes.
Matt Salerno, a junior finance major and UPC member, suggested last year that Barnhart come to the university, but the timing wasn’t right until now.
“At the University Program Council, we believe that educating our students is just as important as entertaining them,” Salerno wrote in an email.
“As a Mayan scholar, he knows exactly what the ending of the Mayan calendar means, and I feel it’s important to teach that.”
Barnhart, who has more than 20 years of experience studying Mesoamerica, debunked several theories of apocalypses speculated to occur on Dec. 21, when the Maya calendar is said to end. Those theories include solar flares, magnetic polar shifts and planetary alignments that could change the poles, he said.
The solar flares would harm satellites briefly, more than humans, he said. The magnetic poles are shifting, but will take 10,000 years to do so, and astronomy projections for Dec. 21 don’t show any planets in alignment, he said.
The theories formed after 1966 when Michael Coe published his book, “The Maya.” Others from America followed and formed 2012 apocalypse theories from Chinese and Egyptian writings.
The Maya calendar only mentions 2012 in two tablets found so far, he said.
Barnhart said neither tablet indicates the world would end in 2012. Instead, the Maya say Dec. 21 could be a time of change, he said.
The Maya think with circles, and like an odometer, the calendar would keep clicking after Dec. 21, he said. An apocalypse would be man-made, like someone hitting the reset button on an odometer, he said.
LuAnn Wandsnider, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln anthropology department chair, said scholars know more about the Maya than 30 years ago when she did archaeology work.
Over the years, more hieroglyphs have been translated and archeological technology has advanced, she said. She has seen more students interested in Maya archaeology.
“A lot of the popular interest in the Mayan area is partly because it’s kind of exotic and kind of cool,” she said “It’s a totally different situation with these towering monuments and hieroglyphs.”