Starcrossed: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Bizarre Anti-Mayan Rant

By Arturo R. García

At the end of last month, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson posted this missive on Twitter:

Just two days later, our one-time Crush of the Week either forgot his own advice or let his trademark snark veer off toward a disturbing, unprovoked bit of culture-shaming.

Though Dr. Tyson has been dismissive in the past of the “Mayan Apocalypse” hoaxes surrounding Dec. 21, 2012, he doubled-down on set of another set of misconceptions over the weekend:

Besides being rather grisly, that second tweet is just flat-out wrong: There are a reported six or seven million Mayans alive and well, mostly in Central America. Which begs the question: were readers supposed to laugh at the thought of their culture’s destruction?

Furthermore, not only are the Mayan people still around, but the flawed interest in their calendar’s “predictions”–we’ll get back to that in a second–has also led to more study of their culture as a whole, according to Jose Barreiro, a member of the Taino Nation of the Antilles currently serving as Assistant Director for Research at the National Museum of the American Indian:

From Yucatan to Honduras and centrally throughout Guatemala, the new scholarship on Maya is a veritable industry. The Mayan world is a huge topic, with dozens of themes, hundreds of major sites, artifacts by the tens of thousands under study at any given time. Whole cities are excavated out of the forests of Meso-America, with tremendously exotic and exciting features: elegant and monumental architecture, cosmological alignments, highly artistic and meaningful works in precious stone, in massive columns and tombs, in writing and communications devices that still convey fresh histories of the ancient past.

And while the Mayans may not have discovered the wheel, they are credited with discovering the numerical value of zero and with investigating solar eclipses; historians also believe that the Mayans were producing rubber products as early as the 16th century. So, in essence, without the Mayans, it’s doubtful Dr. Tyson’s precious wheel would have a tire to roll on.

But let’s go back to that “Doomsday prophecy” that angers Dr. Tyson so:

Dr. Tyson might be relieved to find out that the Mayans themselves are also opposed to this kind of scam:

“We are speaking out against deceit, lies and twisting of the truth, and turning us into folklore-for-profit. They are not telling the truth about time cycles,” charged Felipe Gomez, leader of the Maya alliance Oxlaljuj Ajpop.

Several films and documentaries have promoted the idea that the ancient Mayan calendar predicts that doomsday is less than two months away, on December 21, 2012.

The Culture Ministry is hosting a massive event in Guatemala City–which as many as 90,000 people are expected to attend–just in case the world actually does end, while tour groups are promoting doomsday-themed getaways.

Maya leader Gomez urged the Tourism Institute to rethink the doomsday celebration, which he criticized as a “show” that was disrespectful to Mayan culture.

Experts say that for the Maya, all that ends in 2012 is one of their calendar cycles, not the world.

(That would be the non-deceased Oxlaljuj Ajpop, by the way.)

And in case Dr. Tyson needs independent confirmation, perhaps he should watch this short video:

As USA Today reported this past May:

Newly discovered wall writings found in Guatemala show the famed Maya culture’s obsession with cycles of time. But they also show calendars that go well beyond 2012, the year when the vanished civilization, according to popular culture, expected the end of the world.

“So much for the supposed end of the world,” says archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University, lead author of a study in the journal Science, which reported the discovery on Thursday.

Considering that Dr. Tyson has garnered a following in mainstream geekdom, we should also consider that many of his supporters will seek to claim the by-now way-too-familiar “humor defense” on his behalf, which adds another problematic layer to this affair.

Simply put, it’s anybody’s guess how many of the 4,900 or so people who either passed along or bookmarked his dismissal of the Mayans “not predicting their own downfall” are going to 1) get that it was a joke in the first place or 2) be bothered to care that he was talking about actual people, with actual families, with an actual culture that, while not exterminated, was taken by force.

This argument, by the way, should not be interpreted as a questioning or undermining of Dr. Tyson’s overall body of work:

I have no reason to doubt that. But there’s got to be less insulting ways to make sure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/taylor.held Taylor Held

    When you’re taking your cues from a Mel Gibson movie and some internet nuts, you officially have no room to talk about ‘under-informed’. And by the way, getting angry at the Maya for some stupid apocalypse-obsessed crazy people and their ridiculous misinterpretations is just plain dumb, and very unbecoming of such a smart guy.

  • http://twitter.com/AuRevoir3179 DCasp

    I don’t think it was a dig at the mayans as much as it was a frustation with doomsday soothsayers saying the world is going to end in a few weeks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shelley.burian Shelley Burian

    I admire Dr. Tyson very much and as a graduate student working on cultures of the ancient Americas (although with a focus on the Inka not the Maya) I was very saddened to see this. What Dr. Tyson seems to be referring to is the theory developed out of a very erroneous interpretation of Mayan epigraphy and calendrical systems as well as bogus science, and I wish he had directed his anger against the mis-interpretation of ancient indigenous peoples and the way that modern culture draws on their history without any pretense at proper research or true understanding, instead of at a group of people who have been fighting against this use of their culture for a long time. I would direct Dr. Tyson to follow his own advise and read many of the excellent books which have come out by scholars such as David Stewart and to read the testimony of modern Yucatac and Quiche Maya peoples on the very complex and cyclical way that they and their ancestors understand/understood time.

    • RCHOUDH

      I agree, he should’ve stuck to the scientific aspect of this discussion and his dig at the demise of Mayan culture was especially hard to take lightly.