They might be best known for having predicted the end of the world on 21 December 2012, but the Mayans gave us so much more to appreciate, admire and learn from before our inevitable doom. Though it has been wildly misinterpreted, the very fact that the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar survives to this day – well, to Friday, to be precise – is a measure of the Mayans' success. The Long Count began in 3114BC, and has been counting down ever since.
Meanwhile Mayan civilisation, which included some of the grandest and most complex cities in Central America, spread across the southern states of present-day Mexico, and spanned more than 3,000 years before the arrival of the Europeans. The Maya people are still present in the region they dominated and beyond, in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala. Millions still speak Mayan languages and Yucatan Maya survived intact to be used in Mel Gibson's 2006 movie Apocalypto, about the death throes of Mayan society. Perhaps the Mayans' most singular achievement, in fact, was to develop the only known written language in the pre-Columbian Americas that corresponds directly to a spoken language.
The first signs of Maya influence have been traced back as far as 2600BC, but archaeologists now agree the first exclusively Maya communities were established on Mexico's Pacific coast around 1800BC. They farmed intensively and traded with their neighbours in sensible goods such as cacao and salt and also in less sensible ones, such as seashells. Their sophisticated agricultural system came to sustain crops like corn and cotton.
The society reached its peak during the so-called "Classic" period between 250 and 900AD, when its cities bustled with populations well into the tens of thousands. At one time, Tikal is thought to have been home to 100,000 people. Mayan cities were interconnected fiefdoms, but they lacked a political core, which made their subjugation by the Spanish a gruelling, drawn out process lasting some 170 years.
Those cities are still known for their signature architectural achievements: the step-pyramids that housed temples and palaces. Their urban design, say experts, was focused on these grand structures, often at the expense of residential considerations. This doesn't mean the Mayans were impractical, however: in the ancient city of Palenque, for instance, archaeologists believe they've found plumbing consistent with engineered water pressure, which long pre-dates European colonisation.
Keen astronomers, the Mayans built their temples to correspond to the celestial map. Their astronomical observations are said to be at least the equal of any other pre-telescopic civilisation.
The Classic Period of Mayan history was so-named for its art – murals, carvings, reliefs – which, in its skill and beauty, the region's conquerors thought recalled the Classical art of the Old World.
And the Mayan written language, composed of a few hundred hieroglyphs, has been dated to 200-300BC, and was in use continuously until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
Spanish priests ordered that all paper texts be burned, and only three Mayan "codices" out of many thousands have survived intact as a record of their knowledge and history.