CARVED INTO the hard stone of a hillside outside the Mexican city of Acapulco is a mysterious image that lay hidden for 4,000 years.
It shows a monkey with one foot lifted in dance. The monkey's long tail curls over its head. The primate appears to be holding a five-pointed star. As in a scene out of Alice in Wonderland, the monkey is perched on the crown of a giant mushroom. Over one shoulder, a series of dots radiates like Morse code, and by the figure's belly, more dots are arrayed around an assemblage of concentric rings. Off to the left is another constellation of three dots.
The Mexican archaeologists who uncovered this strange glyph say it was put there by the ancient Maya around 2000 BC. At that time, the grand cycle of existence laid out in the intricate Mayan calendar system was just 1,000 years old.
But the timing of the monkey's rediscovery four millennia later is remarkable, because that long age is now drawing to a close. The year 2012 is widely thought to be the end of the Mayan calendar, which has been taken by some to signal the apocalypse.
Yet hidden in the simple lines of the mushroom monkey picture may be the key to a secret that upends everything we think we know about the Maya, their calendar, and the coming apocalypse.
Carl de Borhegyi, a Maya researcher in Minneapolis, has been studying the image closely, and says it has shocking implications.
"There's all this excitement and panic right now about 2012 and the Mayan apocalypse," de Borhegyi says. "But the message contained in this image turns all that upside down.
"Let me put it this way: What if the apocalypse already happened?"
THE WORLD is gripped by fear and fascination with what will take place on December 21, 2012. The significance of the date is traced back to the ancient Maya.
"There are roots in the actual Mayan calendars and texts, of course," says Anthony Aveni, an anthropologist and astronomer at Colgate University who has studied the 2012 phenomenon. "But what we've seen is that as this phenomenon has taken root in popular culture, it's served as a vehicle for a lot of New Age ideas and other pre-existing beliefs."
The panic, which had until then mostly flourished on the internet and in specialty book shops, broke into the mainstream consciousness in 2009, when the blockbuster film 2012 brought visions of widespread devastation to a mass market.
"American religion has always been deeply rooted in apocalyptic endings, and we are coming off a decade of cataclysmic events, from 9/11 to the Japanese earthquake," Aveni says. "I get emails from people telling me they're going to commit suicide. They're taking it seriously."
That's a mistake, says de Borhegyi, who believes the 2012 end date is based on a major miscalculation.
"The Mayans used a much different calendar from the European one," de Borhegyi says. "There's always been some debate about the correlation between the two."
In the Mayan calandar, a tun is a unit of just less than 20 years. Twenty tuns are a k'atun, 20 k'atuns are a b'ak'tun, and 13 b'ak'tuns make up a "great cycle."
It is that great cycle—a 5,125-year period—that doomsayers and new-agers say is coming to a close on December 21, 2012.
But the cycle's end depends on when it began, and not everyone agrees on where to start. By the time Europeans encountered the Mayans, they had stopped using the full "long count" calendar notation in favor of an abbreviation.
"It's as though we started writing all our dates 2/25/11," de Borhegyi explains. "That gives you some information, but if someone came along afterwards, they could get confused. Are we talking about 2011? 1811? 1511?"
The dominant theory for years has been the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation, which pegs the start of the cycle at 3134 BC. That fits the known dates and some of the archaeological evidence, and also squares with carbon-dating evidence.
But so does another theory, called the Spinden correlation, which lines up 260 years earlier on the European calendar.
"That's what makes this monkey so important," de Borhegyi argues. "The dots over his shoulder represent a long-count date: 126.96.36.199.2. Under the Spinden correlation, that lines up with a year known as three-monkey."
De Borhegyi points to the three dots on the left hand side of the carving. "Three," he says, then points to the central figure. "Monkey."
"If you use Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation, it doesn't work," he says. "All this talk about the end of the world-age, the apocalypse, Armageddon, planetary alignment—it's wrong. It's not happening in 2012. It happened 259 years ago."
THE SECURITY guards at the Milwaukee Public Museum have known about the ghost for years. Elevators spring to life on their own, invariably making their way to the third floor.
The third floor is home to the special collection of the former director of the museum, a revered Maya archaeologist killed in the prime of his life. A portrait of the man on the third floor, set into a richly carved wooden frame, shows him as he was in life: dapper, mustachioed, with slicked-back hair and a pipe set pensively to his lips.
Lance Hampel, a longtime guard at the museum, says there's no question as to the identity of the ghost, because he was positively ID'ed by a man who knew him in life.
"He saw him come out of this fake tomb wall, and then turn and go down the stairs," says Hampel. "The contractor actually knew the man in the '60s. He said he recognized him instantly."
The ghost is Stephan de Borhegyi—Carl's father.
By the time he arrived in America, Stephan de Borhegyi was like a real-life Indiana Jones. A Hungarian baron, he had fought on both sides of the Second World War before turning his attention to Egyptian archaeology. The charismatic nobleman caused quite a stir in the staid circles of American anthropology when he arrived.
"He had a reputation for being dramatic and flamboyant," recalls Suzanne Forrest, who met de Borhegyi in 1948 and married him a year later. "He enjoyed playing up being Hungarian. He was not above kissing ladies' hands."
Soon after his arrival, de Borhegyi became obsessed with the Mayans. Much less was known in those days about the ancient civilization that once stretched the length of the Yucutan peninsula and deep into present-day Guatemala. Scholars puzzled over what seemed to be the sudden collapse of a once-thriving society centuries before Europeans made their first contact with the Aztecs.
If archaeologists knew little about the cities that thrived between 2000 BC and 900 AD in the fertile lowlands, they knew even less about the Highland Maya, high in the Guatemalan mountains. It was there, in the mountains, that de Borhegyi and his wife collected evidence that suggested scholars were wrong to think of the highland region as a sparse backwater. They returned to the mountains again and again, exploring dozens of significant sites.
Meanwhile, de Borhegyi's career as a museum director was taking off, with appointments to Oklahoma and then to the Milwaukee Public Museum. But he took every available opportunity to visit Guatemala and continue his research.
As he delved deeper into the Highland Maya secrets, de Borhegyi became entranced with a set of mysterious objects he half-jokingly called "mushroom stones"—carved figures about a foot tall with broad, cap-like heads.
Word of de Borhegyi's fascination with the mushroom stones got back to Gordon Wasson, an eccentric banker who was studying the use of psychotropic mushrooms in religious rituals. De Borhegyi's research sounded promising, Wasson thought, so he invited himself and his wife down to see what they could discover together.
"They wanted to go up into the highlands and see if they could find any evidence of a mushroom cult surviving among the descendants of the Maya," de Borhegyi's widow, Forrest, remembers. "We said we'd go with them."
But as the two couples traveled among isolated villages asking about mushroom rituals, they were invariably greeted with a stony silence.
"They'd tell me if I didn't know already, I wasn't old enough to know," Forrest says.
The Wassons left Guatemala in defeat, moving on Mexico. In Oaxaca, they found what they'd been seeking: An old shaman agreed to guide Wasson through an Aztec mushroom ritual. It would be the first documented encounter with psilocybin mushroom by white man.
"I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view," Wasson wrote of his experience. "I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life. The thought crossed my mind: Could the divine mushrooms be the secret that lay behind the ancient mysteries?"
Wasson's account of his trip was published in Life and kicked off the psychedelic '60s. Wasson's mushroom samples made their way to Harvard, where Timothy Leary and Ram Dass turned on and dropped out. They were also sent to a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann, who synthesized the active ingredient and later became known as the father of LSD.
In Guatemala, de Borhegyi's progress on the Mayan mushroom mystery stalled, but he was making other discoveries. Using an early iteration of the Scuba technology developed by Jacques Cousteau, he pioneered one of the earliest examples of underwater archaeology at Lake Amatitlán.
In the summer of 1969, Carl was only 11, but that was old enough to join his father working on a dig. The boy found that he too had a taste for archaeology.
"I remember sitting on the dock and seeing my dad breaking the surface with these incredible figurines in his hands," Carl says. "They were like action figures to me at the time. I wanted them."
One day, Carl was walking with his father by a creek not far from the dig site when a glint of obsidian in the earth caught his eye. It was an arrowhead.
"My dad saw that, and he said, 'You'll make a great archaeologist some day,'" Carl recalls. "That made me smile."
A few months later, tragedy struck. Stephan de Borhegyi had traveled to Chicago for work, but decided to drive through the night in order to be back at the museum by Friday. In the early hours of the morning, his car lurched off North Avenue and slammed into a bridge.
De Borhegyi died instantly. He was 47.
"He had accomplished so much, but so much of his work was also left undone," Carl says. "It doesn't surprise me that the people at the museum say he haunts it. I feel his presence too. He's always over my shoulder. I feel him guiding me."
FROM THE MOMENT Carl saw the event listing, he couldn't get it out of his head: a meeting of the Maya Society at Hamline College, everyone welcome.
It had been more than 30 years since the death of his father, but Carl felt his spirit urging him forward. He called the number listed, and spoke to Phyllis Messenger, the head of the Maya Society.
"I'm interested!" Carl said.
"De Borhegyi," Phyllis said out loud, turning the caller's name over in her mouth. "Are you by any chance related to the great Mayan archaeologist Stephan de Borhegyi?"
"Yes," Carl said. "He was my father."
Suddenly, Carl couldn't stop talking. He confided in Phyllis things he had told hardly anyone—all about his father's death, how it had left a wound that had never fully healed, how after living his whole adult life away from the world of archeology, he wondered if his father wanted him to take up his work with the Maya.
Phyllis told Carl she understood. Her husband had also long been troubled by the death of someone close to him. A Maya scholar himself, Skip Messenger had been standing next to his friend and mentor Denis Puleston atop a Mayan pyramid in Chichen Itza when Puleston was struck by lightning.
"Skip tried to give him CPR, but it was no use," Phyllis told Carl, and paused. "Come to the next Maya Society meeting. I think you might find it's therapeutic."
She was right. From his first visit to the lecture hall in the Drew Science Building, de Borhegyi felt at home. The group brought some of the foremost experts on Mayan civilization to speak, and with every presentation, Carl found himself more fascinated.
He forged an especially close bond with Skip, a kind-eyed man with a Santa Claus beard who remembered meeting Carl's father. Skip invited Carl to take his class the next semester—an introduction to the Maya for Hamline undergraduates.
Carl accepted, and thrived in the program.
"He was so enthusiastic, so excited," Skip says.
After class, Carl whiled away evenings studying his father's papers. He came across repeated mentions of the mushroom mystery, and felt certain that his father must have been right: Psychoactive mushrooms played a central role in Mayan religion.
But just like his father, Carl couldn't find the evidence to prove it.
Until one night he did.
Carl was sitting alone at the dining room table, exploring an online archive of newly scanned images from Mayan funerary vases. He clicked open the first photo in the collection and his jaw dropped.
Two priestly figures stood in a procession. Emblazoned on their robes were psychedelic mushrooms.
"I started shaking," de Borhegyi remembers. "I couldn't believe it. I had found my Rosetta stone."
He rushed upstairs, where his wife, Barbara, had fallen asleep with their young son Cole.
"Wake up!" he said. "I found it! I found the mushrooms!"
Groggy, Barbara didn't immediately register the significance of her husband's words. But Cole did.
"Jeez, Mom," Cole said. "Dad just cracked the Maya code and you're not excited?"
A FEW MONTHS LATER, Carl stood anxiously fiddling with his pointer in the familiar Hamline lecture room as the Maya Society members trickled in.
Turnout looked to be good that night—nearly 100 people, an auspicious crowd for the public unveiling of his discovery.
After years with the Maya Society, Carl now sat on its board, and had a hand in selecting the experts invited to speak. He had invited his mother, Suzanne Forrest, who shared so many of his father's adventures, to talk. But at the last minute, she had injured herself on a trip.
It was the perfect moment to unveil his mushroom findings.
As the lights went down, Carl began his PowerPoint presentation, starting with a slide of the vase that triggered his epiphany.
In the months since his first discovery, he had found hundreds and hundreds of mushroom images in the vase archive. Some were obvious, others hidden in a headdress or as decorative border elements. But once you knew what to look for, the mushrooms were everywhere.
"The discovery of the mushrooms unlocks a whole new level of understanding of the Maya," Carl said. "They used these mushrooms as a sacrament to travel to the underworld, just as the god Quetzalcoatl does every day when the sun sets. That's what the jaguar imagery you see everywhere in Mayan art represents: the transformation into a being of the underworld. That's how they could throw themselves into this death cult, this ritual sacrifice and suicide and bloodletting—they were high on mushrooms."
But to Carl's dismay, not everyone in the audience was persuaded by his revolutionary discovery. Skip, his friend and mentor, thought Carl had overreached.
"He just went a little overboard," Skip says. "He was flipping through images, using the pointer, just saying, 'Mushroom, mushroom, mushroom.' There were certainly some images that I was ready to admit were mushrooms, but a lot of them were just a stretch."
Skip didn't want to pour cold water on Carl's enthusiasm, but he did want to teach him an important lesson he had learned during his own long career in academia: Grand unifying theories are usually illusory. By pursuing mushrooms as a universal key that unlocked a world of hidden meanings in Mayan artifacts, Carl might be chasing a ghost.
"There's a guy who thinks that pretty much everything in Mayan iconography can be decoded with the patterns on the back of a rattlesnake," Skip says. "There's another guy who thinks the key to this whole thing is this particular spider.
"So there's a long line of overly reductionist interpretations."
SITTING IN HIS south Minneapolis home on a recent morning, Carl says the critics don't see the pattern because they don't want to see it. For those with an open mind, the evidence is undeniable.
He gestures toward the rubbing of a Mayan frieze given to his father by a colleague half a century ago, now framed and hung on his dining room wall. The contours are rough, but it clearly shows stylized figures adorned in robes and jewelry.
"Look at the earplugs," Carl says urgently. "Mushrooms."
On his laptop, Carl cycles through some of his latest discoveries of mushroom imagery on funeral vases. He returns once again to the dancing monkey.
"Armageddon has already happened," Carl says. "We missed it. The world didn't end—it just started a new cycle."
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