CREDIT: Stephen Houston
John Scillitani does not want to be seen as a fanatic. As the proprietor of 2012apocalypse.net, one of the top Google hits for searches on the Mayan apocalypse, he'd be easy to paint in that way: His site features pictures of nuclear explosions, images of meteors hitting Earth and a variety of less-pleasant predictions from the darker parts of the Bible.
But over the phone, Scillitani comes across as friendly and likable. He has a family and a job — he's a real estate agent in California — and although he worries about the way the world is going, he says, he's not cowering in a bunker waiting for the end of the world to come.
"I'm just reading stuff and seeing some coincidences that are kind of eerie," Scillitani told LiveScience. He said he put together his site during "a phase" of intense reading about 2012 apocalypse predictions.
People worry about climate change, species' extinction and environmental degradation, Sitler said.
"There is, I think, an attraction in looking back to cultures that we imagine had a better way of doing things," he told LiveScience.
What the Maya think
Of course, Maya culture still exists — even if the empire is long gone. Sitler has interviewed a number of Maya people on their thoughts on the 2012 phenomenon, starting about six years ago. At first, he said, it was a bit like asking the average American about important dates in the Julian calendar, the calendar that Europeans stopped using in 1582.
"When I first started going, nobody knew what I was talking about, nobody had ever heard of it," Sitler said. "That's because that calendar fell into disuse a thousand years ago."
But intense media attention brought the calendar back to the Maya's attention, Sitler said. Out of 100 Maya, he said, "99 of them could care less about any of it," because they're busy with their daily lives. But because that culture sees ancestors as a source of wisdom, many Maya welcomed the import of their own history with open arms.
"There are Maya celebrations scheduled all over Mexico and Guatemala" on Dec. 21, Sitler said.
The Maya scoff at the idea the world will end on that date, he said, but tend to see it as the beginning of a new cycle. The importance of this cycle is often tied to the political issues affecting various regions, Sitler said. One group originally from the rainforest sees the new cycle as ending the world of vegetation or requiring some sort of environmental rebalancing. Another group that has clashed with the Mexican government sees the end of the b'ak'tun as heralding their political victory.
In many ways, the 2012 fever echoes earlier writings by outsiders who simply got the Maya wrong, Sitler said.
"It is in many ways unfortunate, I would say. There's a lot of hysteria, and the vast majority of the information online is simply inaccurate or misrepresents the situation. But there's very little that can stop that from taking place," he said. "People believe what they want to believe."