Everyone talks about how enlightened the Mayans were, but what did they really do?

The Mayan people achieved an awesome, advanced society when Europe was still in the dark ages. The cities built by the Maya were unmatched in beauty and sophistication. The mathematics and geometry that went into the design of some of their structures would challenge even modern architects.

Spanning almost two thousand years, the Maya civilization developed one of the earliest recorded written languages, were adventurous traders, and gifted craftsmen. They were the first people to develop irrigation systems for their crops, and their calendar was more accurate than the one we use today. They developed many styles of art and science, including some medicine that's still used today. They were the first mathematicians to understand the concept of a zero number.

They were also the first astronomers and astrologers, charting the movements of the sun, moon, and stars with incredible accuracy. What's unsettling to people who think about "doomsday" or the end of the world is that the Maya clearly indicated an end to their elaborate calendar (in the year 2012), but they give no indication as to what happens on this date to correspond to the end of their measured time.

Adding to the mysteriously steep rise of their empire is that — for reasons unknown — their culture went into decline. Cities were abandoned and, despite the Mayan tradition of inscribing their history, there has yet to be any record of why. But contrary to popular myth, the Mayan people never "disappeared." Millions still live in the region, and many of them still speak one of the Mayan languages.