According to a new book based on the prophecy of the ancinet Maya, December 21, 2012, will be the end of the world. So, asks Linday Jesnnings, how worried should be be?

ADRIAN Gilbert doesn't sound crazy. He speaks in measured tones, backs up his arguments with his methodical, articulate research and carefully considers his responses to questions posed. There's even room for some light hearted banter.

But the renowned author of The Mayan Prophecies, and now the revised version, The End Of Time: The Mayan Prophecies Revisited, admits he can feel a bit of a lone voice at times.

"I know some people think I'm a nutter," he concedes. "But I'm very careful what I say and I'm careful what I research. I don't believe we're as clever as we think we are and that our culture has all the answers."

The reason some people may view Gilbert as a "nutter" is for his fascinating work in the field of ancient mysteries. He's written about King Arthur; the secrets behind the Pyramids, and, latterly, the Mayan people and their prophecy that the end of the world as we know it, (which is hard to say without launching into the REM song) will come on December 21, 2012 - at midnight to be exact.

Then, the present age known to Mayans as the Age of the Jaguar - which began on August 13, 3114BC on our calendar - will reach its completion and their calendar will click around to zero for the first time in more than 5,000 years.

The end date has intrigued scholars, such as Gilbert, since the Mayan system of time keeping was discovered 100 years ago. What baffles them is the way in which the Mayans invented a calendar with its climax coinciding with a unique astronomical event.

On December 22, 2012, the day after the end of the age, the Sun will be aligned, at the winter solstice, with the centre of our galaxy. It is an event which only happens every 25,800 years, making it the first time in recorded history it has happened.

"It is not an arbitrary position," says Gilbert. "It's like the hands of a clock being at 12 o'clock. The question is how did they manage the precision to know that was going to be such an important date thousands of years into the future when they didn't have telescopes and they didn't have computers?"

It is a fair question. The Mayans were Stone Age people who didn't even have the wheel. Nonetheless, they worshipped their gods, and built wonderful pyramids and temples in what is now Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. The Classic Mayans lived from AD 250 to 1000 and used sophisticated calendar systems.

"People tend to think of them rather like the Greeks in that they lived in city states rather than large empires and were constantly at war with one another," says Gilbert, 57, who lives in Kent. "They were expert astronomers and their greatest claim to fame was their ability to write. It's only in the last decades that people have been able to decipher their hieroglyphics."

Equally strange is that, according to many of the inscriptions they left behind, the start date on their calendar was 3,000 years before they were even around, and 2,000 years before the Olmec were alive, thought to be the earliest civilisation in Central America.

So, where did their fortune telling methods come from? Gilbert believes there are two possibilities.

"One is that little green men came down in spaceships and were cleverer than them," he says, which may not be as strange as it sounds considering Mexico City is a major centre for UFO sightings.

The second is that there is a "universal bank of knowledge" into which Shaman or wise men can tap into, which could explain similar beliefs among other civilisations, even when they have had no contact with one another.

Either way, Gilbert believes we should take the prophecy seriously, the exact tenet being that a number of natural disasters will occur - earthquakes, tsunamis etc - before December 21, 2012, which will lead to changes in the way we live. It sounds a little vague, however.

"All the evidence around is that we are living in a time of change," says Gilbert. "I think we need to take that on board. I'm not saying it should be like Noah building an ark, but it would be wise to look at how we would cope without things like petrol or water.

"The Mayans were certainly more in touch with nature and were trying to appreciate things more instead of relying on materialism."

The Mayans produced some of the world's greatest art, temples and pyramids. But for reasons yet to be understood, the cities were abandoned in 1000. Like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of the Classic Maya civilisation has baffled scholars for generations. But the Mayans saw life in cyclical terms and believed it was the natural order of things for each age to go through a cycle which ended in the destruction of all that had been before it. They saw this not as a permanent end, but as the beginning of a new cycle. They studied time cycles as a method of fortune telling.

Today, there are more than six million Mayan descendants living in Central America. They still use their different calendar systems - one of which is called the Long Count and involves 365 days a year, but they have 18 months comprising 20 days and a 19th month of five days. Many dress the way their ancestors did - the women in embroidered dresses known as 'huipil', the men in shirts and baggy trousers. And they still carry out rituals.

Gilbert witnessed a peace ceremony last year led by Mayan elder Carlos Barrios, who was born and grew up in the highlands of Guatemala. Carlos had been initiated as a Mayan Ajq'il or ceremonial priest and spirit guide.

The ritual was held in a large square next to a steep sided pyramid and saw Carlos lighting a fire.

"We were in the middle of this overgrown city in Belize with trees growing out of the pyramid in which they created a bonfire, which is not something you can imagine them being allowed to do in the middle of Stonehenge" chuckles Gilbert. "They laid it out with candles and crushed up tobacco leaves and he ended up filling his mouth with whisky and spitting it over the fire.

"Just before we did it, there was a huge thunderstorm and it was pouring with rain and I thought how are we going to light the bonfire? When he started the ceremony the thunder started coming back. He lifted his hands up and asked the gods not to make it rain and the clouds cleared. It was very interesting and I felt a huge wave of energy from it."

And just when you think it all sounds rather supernatural, Gilbert puts his scientific head on and adds: "Of course you could say it was just a coincidence."

It is the Mayan elders of today, such as Carlos Barrios, who have issued the prophecy tied in with the end of the age. We need to take action against pollution and materialism, they warn, because they think "everything is going to happen". By everything, they mean more natural disasters and point to signs that the prophecy is already materialising in the form of the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Kashmir. Next there will be fires in the form of magma, so the prophecy goes, and they cite the eruption of the 'supervolcano' at Yellowstone National Park in America.

Regardless of whether or not the prophecy comes true, it makes for interesting reading and filming. The collapse of the Mayan civilisation will be the subject of Mel Gibson's new film, Apocalypto Now, due out in January next year.

So, will there be any safe place to live come December 21, 2012 - and, interestingly, where will Gilbert be?

"I could move to Australia... but I think I'll probably be here," he says light-heartedly. "But it might be an idea to buy some real estate North of Canada - away from earthquake zones, supervolcanoes and the coast."

* The End of Time: The Mayan Prophecies Revisited (Mainstream Publishing, £17.99) is published on September 7.