Maya Economy and Daily Life

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Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Sarah Hermsen , and Deborah J. Baker
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Culture overview
Length: 5,923 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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23 Maya Economy and Daily Life

From the Classic Maya (pronounced MY-uh) era, beginning about 250 C.E., Maya artists and scribes (people who wrote glyphs—the Maya writing system using figures for words and sounds—on monuments and in books) focused their writing on the lives of the rich and powerful of their time. Almost all of the writing and art left behind portrays the heroic deeds and courtly lives of the nobles of ancient Maya cities.

The upper classes of Maya society represented only a tiny portion of the population. Most people lived in humble farming villages and towns ruled by one of the large Maya cities. The farmers worked hard to feed themselves and to provide the enormous amount of food, goods, and labor necessary to support the cities and their elite or ruling classes.

With the breakthroughs in deciphering (figuring out the meaning of) Maya glyphs, many historians in the last decades of the twentieth century focused on the royal families whose lives were chronicled by Maya historians. There are many unexplored ancient cities and villages, untouched by modern hands, lying beneath the tropical jungles—especially those without huge pyramids or ornate temples to draw attention Page 416  |  Top of Article to them. There is little known about the daily lives of ordinary Mayas: were they poor or comfortable in their lives? How strict was the rule of the royal families? What were the roles of women? How did their economies work?

Many fascinating new clues to the daily existence of the Maya are being discovered as excavations continue in the twenty-first century. In the early 2000s new archeological evidence revealed not only a thriving trade network, but a wealthy merchant class during the Classic Maya era—both of which had been previously unknown to scholars.

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Words to Know

Connections between states or other political units based on mutual interests, intermarriage of families, or other relations.
Cacao beans:
Beans that grow on an evergreen tree from which cocoa, chocolate, and cocoa butter are made.
Underground reservoirs or rivers that become accessible from above ground when cave ceilings collapse or erode.
To figure out the meaning of something in code or in an ancient language.
A group of people within a society who are in a socially superior position and have more power and privileges than others.
A figure (often carved into stone or wood) used as a symbol to represent words, ideas, or sounds.
Dark, solid glass formed by volcanoes used to make blades, knives, and other tools.
Someone hired to write down the language, to copy a manuscript, or record a spoken passage.
A stone pillar carved with images or writing, often used to provide historical details or for religious or political purposes.

Cancuen: Place of serpents

In April 2000, U.S. archaeologist Arthur Demarest and a team of Guatemalan scientists were walking through what they assumed was a small set of ruins in a remote area Page 417  |  Top of Article of Guatemala's tropical jungles. After some stelae (upright slabs or pillars of stone carved with pictures and glyphs) found in the Maya cities of Tikal and Dos Pilas in the Petén jungles of Guatemala had referred to a great marketplace known as Cancuen (pronounced CAN-coo-win), Demarest and his team led an expedition deep into the jungle to find the site.

Map showing the major sites of Maya civilization in Mesoamerica. Map by XNR Productions. The Gale Group. Map showing the major sites of Maya civilization in Mesoamerica. Map by XNR Productions. The Gale Group.

As Demarest ascended a hill, he suddenly fell shoulder-deep into a leafy hole, which he quickly realized was a snake nest. Forced to remain perfectly still to avoid being bitten by the poisonous snakes, he had plenty of time to survey his surroundings. He discovered that the hill he had climbed was not a hill at all, but rather the roof of a huge palace completely covered over by the tropical forests. Demarest had stumbled upon the great city of Cancuen, which meant "the Place of the Serpents" in Mayan.

Early investigations proved Demarest had indeed discovered a huge, 3-story palace covering nearly 250,000 square feet (23,250 square meters)—about the size of six football fields. Inside there were nearly two hundred rooms, most with 20-foot-high (6.1-meter) ceilings, and at least eleven courtyards. The palace's solid limestone walls had been well-preserved by the tropical forests, holding up far better than the Maya's usual walls made of concrete and mud.

It was immediately clear that the king who had reigned during the design and construction of the palace must have had great power; the palace would have dazzled any visitors who entered the maze-like building. Outside the palace were houses where artisans (craftspeople) and merchants lived. There were also hundreds of workshops, where the artisans carved jade (a green gemstone) ornaments and jewelry, and made knives and tools out of obsidian (a solid, dark glass created by volcanoes). It is believed that Cancuen's Page 418  |  Top of Article
Ruins of the once three-story palace at Cancuen, Guatemala. AP/Wide World Photos. Ruins of the once three-story palace at Cancuen, Guatemala. AP/Wide World Photos. population ranged between about one thousand to three thousand people at its peak.

Cancuen was located at the foot of the highlands, on a small natural harbor at the beginning of the Passion River. Its location at the head of the river allowed the city to control trade between the southern highlands of Central America and the Classic Maya city-states (independent self-governing communities consisting of a single city and the surrounding area) of Tikal, Palenque, and Copán further north. The business of trade had been ongoing in Cancuen since 300 C.E. or earlier, making the city and most of its people, both workers and nobles, very wealthy. The city became extremely powerful because it controlled the area's natural resources, such as jade, which was highly valued by the Mayas. (Jade was considered as valuable as gold was to other civilizations.)

In a Public Broadcasting System interview available on the PBS Online Newshour Web site in 2000, Demarest described Page 419  |  Top of Article much evidence of Cancuen's thriving trade, including a 35-pound (16-kilogram) jade boulder used for making plaques and other artifacts, as well as pyrite (fool's gold) and obsidian workshops. According to Demarest, many "of the most precious things in the Maya world were being controlled by [the king of Cancuen]," most of which were then "worked into fine artifacts by his artisans, and then traded down river."

While other Maya cities derived their power from religious activities and warfare, scholars were surprised to find no sign of warfare in Cancuen. Instead, its rulers forged strong trade alliances (connections based on mutual interests, intermarriage of families, or other relations) with other cities throughout the Maya world. Trade, and the wealth it brought, made the city strong until, like other Maya cities in the Classic era, it was abandoned in the ninth century for reasons that remain uncertain.


In pre-Classic times, before about 300 C.E., scholars believe the Maya probably traded only locally among themselves. By 400, however, the city of Teotihuacán (pronounced TAY-uh-tee-wah-KAHN) in the far northeastern section of the Valley of Mexico (about 25 miles [40.2 kilometers] northeast of present-day Mexico City) had developed a vast economic empire (a vast, complex unit extending across boundaries and dominated by one central power) covering much of the southern two-thirds of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, as well as some parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya world was strongly influenced by the Teotihuacáns, and the Classic Maya cities were clearly a part of the Teotihuacán trading network for a significant period of time. From then forward, long-distance trade was central to the Maya and remained so until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century.

The first known encounter between the Mayas and the Europeans provides a view of the trading activities in the Maya world. When Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and his crew were on their fourth voyage to the Americas (still looking for the Indies, or Asia) in 1502, they spotted a large seagoing canoe off the coast of Honduras. The canoe was very wide and cut from a single, giant tree. It was Page 420  |  Top of Article loaded with goods including wooden obsidian-edged swords, copper tools, textiles, embroidered and painted clothing, ceramics, and cacao beans (beans that grow on an evergreen tree from which cocoa, chocolate, and cocoa butter are made). The men and women aboard the canoe were clearly transporting goods for trade. They told the Spaniards they had come from Maia, and this is how the Spanish came to call them the "Mayas."

Cacao beans were highly prized by the Mayas, both as food as well as a type of money. Birchbank Press Photo Bank. Reproduced by permission. Cacao beans were highly prized by the Mayas, both as food as well as a type of money. Birchbank Press Photo Bank. Reproduced by permission.

In the Classic era, trade was central to the economy of the numerous independent city-states. Every region had its own special products to export (sell to other places). Areas that had control of the resources of the highland areas (like Cancuen), exported jade, obsidian, and quetzal feathers (highly valued green tropical bird feathers). The lowlands exported ceramics, honey, and rubber. Coastal Maya traders exported salt, shells, and dried fish. The exchange of these products usually involved a direct trade of items, such as jade for ceramics. Sometimes, though, Maya merchants paid for goods with cacao beans, which were used as a kind of money.

Cities that did not have direct access to resources like obsidian or jade were still major centers of the large Maya trading network. Tikal, for example, the largest of the Classic era cities, served as a vital trade center where products like salt were brought in from the coast and traded for obsidian brought in from the highlands. Merchants in Tikal purchased raw materials, such as obsidian, and made products to sell, creating a very large and profitable industry in the city. Tikal had about one hundred obsidian workshops, where knives and tools were made, and many other industries as well.

By the post-Classic era after 900 C.E. (when Chichén Itzá [pronounced chee-CHEN eet-SAH], Mayapán, and Uxmal [pronounced oosh-MAHL] in the northern lowlands were Page 421  |  Top of Article
The ruins of Tikal, a once thriving trade center for Maya merchants.  Enzo and Paolo Ragazzini/Corbis. The ruins of Tikal, a once thriving trade center for Maya merchants. © Enzo and Paolo Ragazzini/Corbis. powerful cities), many scholars believe prosperous long-distance trading had prompted a new class to emerge—a large and strong middle class. In the northern lowlands of Yucatán after about 1000 C.E., a few merchant families grew very wealthy through trade. They often established trading alliances with families in other cities.

Commoners, it seems, were able to rise through the social ranks through successful trade. Soon merchants from both the noble and common working classes came into political power. The middle-class ranks swelled even more in the industrial cities, where craftspeople made up a significant portion of the population and assumed higher status and more wealth than the common workers or farmers.

Traders were highly respected by the Maya people. They were not taxed and were often provided food and lodging by locals while traveling. In ancient Maya times, there were no pack animals to help with transporting goods to far-away Page 422  |  Top of Article places, so most traders acquired slaves to carry their goods. Slaves were usually people who had been captured during warfare, or sometimes they were criminals or orphans.

The Maya had an excellent road system for traveling between cities. Traders and merchants, as well as their slaves and other people they employed, traveled to cities both within and outside the Maya world. The traders came back with exciting new ideas and many stories to tell. In their travels, they acquired the foods, tools, jewelry, clothing, and arts of the many lands and peoples of Mesoamerica.


Trade was important to the economy of the Maya city-states, but the single most important economic activity was farming. The city-states could not have survived without enough crops to sustain their people, such as those involved in trade and crafts, as well as construction of city buildings and monuments. The majority of the ancient Maya population was made up of farmers.

Maize (corn) was the primary crop in the Maya world. Maize was considered a gift of the gods to the people. It was part of most Maya religious ceremonies, appeared in much of their art, and even in their personal adornments. Maya headdresses, for example, were often shaped like ears of corn. In stories about the creation of the Maya people, it was believed the gods created humans from maize. Both nobles and common people ate maize on a daily basis, often three times a day with each meal.

Maya farmers also grew other crops: black and red beans, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, cacao, avocados, tomatoes, chili peppers, guavas, papayas, bananas, melons, and cotton. They grew cacao trees for their favorite drink, called xocoatl, or chocolate (see the box on pages 430–431), which was generally only available to the ruling classes.

Most Maya farmers lived outside the cities in small villages ruled by local chieftains (leader or head of a group) who were responsible to the nobility of the city-states. The land surrounding these villages was owned by all the people in common. Local leaders, appointed by the nobility, divided Page 423  |  Top of Article the village land up among families based on need. The farmers received a plot to farm and most had a kitchen garden as well. There was also a communal plot tended to by all of a village's farmers. Village land was not simply to be used for the benefit of the farmers; Maya farmers gave about two-thirds of their crops and much of their labor to the nobility of the nearby city.

Maize, or corn, was the primary crop of Maya farmers. U.S. Agricultural Research Service, USDA. Maize, or corn, was the primary crop of Maya farmers. U.S. Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Milpa farming

The small plot of land—called a milpa, or cornfield—received by each villager was about the right size to provide for their needs. These milpa sites were temporary because the Maya use a farming system called "slash and burn" agriculture. Initially, milpas were sections of the tropical forest that had not been farmed for many years. Once a family received their milpa, they cut down all the jungle growth and the trees, allowing the cuttings to dry out on the land. After burning the cuttings, ashes from the fires provided necessary nutrients to boost the poor soil and farmers could then plant crops on the land.

Farmers usually planted crops during the rainy season, from May to October. After the milpas were farmed for a few years, the soil would lose its nutrients and would be abandoned for a time to "rest." In the Petén area of Guatemala and other parts of the southern lowlands, land was left to rest for about four to seven years; in the northern lowlands of the Yucatán peninsula, where the soil is even thinner, the fields had to be left to rest for about fifteen to twenty years.

When a farmer left a milpa, he would clear another section from the forests. Over time, and as the population grew, more and more of the rainforests were cleared for farming to support the needs of the growing Maya world. This rapid clearing may actually have been responsible for climate Page 424  |  Top of Article
A field prepared for planting crops by burning, according to the Maya farming custom.  Charles  Josette Lenars/Corbis. A field prepared for planting crops by burning, according to the Maya farming custom. © Charles & Josette Lenars/Corbis. changes in the region, which in turn led to the abandonment of some Classic era cities in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Another challenge faced by Maya farmers was obtaining enough water for their crops. In hilly or mountainous areas of the highlands, the Maya dug terraces (large steps used to create level ground for farming) into the slopes, where water supplies were more plentiful. In some lowland areas where the land was swampy, they developed canal systems in gridlike patterns throughout the farmlands, carrying water, and perhaps even permitting canoe travel, throughout vast areas.

Fields were raised above the canals, receiving a controlled amount of moisture to produce larger crops. In the northern lowlands, villages often formed around cenotes (underground reservoirs or rivers that become accessible from above ground when cave ceilings collapse or erode). The Maya also developed excellent systems for collecting Page 425  |  Top of Article rainwater, building large tanks to hold water through frequently occurring droughts (long periods of little or no rain). Water was collected during the tropical downpours, which sometimes dumped up to 100 inches (254 centimeters) in a few months.

The Maya did not raise many animals for meat. The exceptions were dogs, kept as pets and sometimes eaten, and turkeys. They did hunt for meat, though, using bows and arrows or blowguns (long narrow pipes through which pellets or poison darts can be blown). Meat gathered from hunting included monkey, deer, iguana, and armadillo. Many Maya farmers also kept bees for honey.

Maya scholar Richard E.W. Adams urged people studying the Maya not to romanticize them. Farmers, under the direction of elite groups in the city, were forced to produce more and more food for the growing populations of the cities. Adams believes—and many other scientists agree—that the Mayas eventually destroyed the tropical rainforest environment, causing the food shortages that marked the end of the Classic era. He described his findings in a 1996 Cosmos Journal article:

Maya cities were sustained by large rural populations. Based on intensive ground surveys (mine and others), there were as many as 450 people per square mile. This astounding density is similar to that found today in crowded rural zones.… One current fallacy [something untrue] is that native American populations lived in harmony with nature with relatively little deleterious [bad] effect. It is simply not true for the Maya or many other Mesoamerican groups, nor probably for the New World as a whole. Thirteen hundred years after their entry into the lowlands around 750 C.E. nearly every square meter of land had been modified. This was done first by slash-and-burn farming and later by intensive agricultural systems such as swamp drainage, hillside terracing, and field rotation systems. The vast tropical forests of recent times are a result of 1100 years of recovery after the catastrophic Maya collapse [in] about 840.

Daily life

Marriage, family, and child rearing

Marriage and family were very important to the Mayas. Marriages were often arranged by parents, who would consult a matchmaker with knowledge of the Maya calendar Page 426  |  Top of Article cycles and the positions of the stars and planets. Couples were matched by their dates of birth. The day of the wedding was also planned around calendar cycles.

The young couple lived with the female's parents for several years after the marriage so the husband could prove his worth to the wife's parents. If the marriage was not working out, it was permissible for the couple to divorce simply by agreeing to it. Both were then free to marry someone else. Among noblemen, it was acceptable to have as many wives as one could afford. Among the common people, however, monogamy (one spouse) was the rule.

The Mayas loved large families. Maya couples greeted the news of a new baby with joy and celebration. Parents would consult a priest when the baby was born to find out about the alignment of the stars and the calendar cycles involved in the child's birth. Priests gave children their names, though children would also get a nickname from their families, and later, a formal name. Male names always began with the prefix Ah, which was changed to Na after marriage. Female names began with the prefix Ix.

When Maya boys reached the age of five, a white shell was braided into their hair. Girls of the same age received a red shell on a string tied around their waists. These symbols of childhood and purity remained in place until the boy was fourteen and the girl reached twelve. At this time, a puberty ceremony was conducted by a priest, assisted by several respected members of the community. After clearing the room of evil spirits, the priest would ask the child to confess any evil acts he or she may have done, and, if all was in order, performed rituals and prayers upon the child ending with the removal of the child's childhood shell. Gifts were exchanged and the adults would then drink pulque (pronounced PUHL-kay), a fermented ceremonial drink made from agave cactus, to toast the child's future.

After the puberty ceremony, Maya boys often left home to live in houses with other young, unmarried men. There they learned crafts, played games, and were trained in warfare. They still went daily into the cornfields to work with their fathers. They painted themselves black to show they were single. Boys generally did not marry until the age of eighteen. Girls remained with their parents after puberty, learning Page 427  |  Top of Article the work they would be expected to perform as wives. They learned to grind maize and cook, spin and weave textiles, sew and embroider, and to do other crafts and household duties. Girls generally were married by the age of fourteen.

When a couple married, they divided the household labor. The man was usually the principal farmer, but the woman worked in the fields too. Men hunted and fished. In the off-seasons, the men were obligated to join huge construction groups who built giant monuments, irrigation canals, roads, and other public works requiring vast amounts of labor.

Women were in charge of home maintenance, cooking, childrearing, and the production of crafts, such as cloth and often pottery. The hardworking Maya women were, for the most part, respected. They were sometimes allowed to own property, and in a few instances, noble Maya women became rulers of the great city-states. Like many societies, however, the Mayas did not treat women as the equals of men. Women were not supposed to look directly at a man, and they were not allowed to eat their meals with men. The women served men their dinners, and ate later.


When many people think of Maya homes they are likely to think of great palaces or temples. These were the homes of the very small noble class, who lived in the cities. The vast majority of Mayas lived in the outskirts of the cities or in farming villages. Their homes were usually built in complexes, with several homes surrounding a central courtyard. The complex was often made up of the homes of extended family members (the relatives beyond the parents and children, including aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins).

The houses of the common people were usually rectangular, with one or two rooms each. They were made from either wood or stone, depending on the materials available. Some houses were made from poles (the trunks of young trees, stripped of their bark) tied together and set on a stone foundation. Most had two doors standing across the house from each other so a breeze could flow through. They did not actually use doors in these doorways, but sometimes hung a blanket across Page 428  |  Top of Article
Mayas still live in houses like this one, similar to those of their ancestors.  David G. Houser/Corbis. Mayas still live in houses like this one, similar to those of their ancestors. © David G. Houser/Corbis. for privacy. The weather in the tropics was usually warm so there was generally no need to keep out the breezes. Roofs were made of thick palm thatch (plant stocks used for roofing).

There was little furniture in a Maya house. If the house had two rooms, one was used by the whole family for sleeping. Beds were woven straw mats placed on the floor in a low, wooden frame. The other room was used as a kitchen and living room. There were benches and stools along with pottery, baskets, and hanging chili peppers in the room.


In the farming villages and towns throughout the Maya world, women and girls rose very early each day to begin making breakfast, usually with some form of maize. Because maize has tough kernels that are difficult to digest, the Maya women were continually processing it. They soaked the dry kernels in water and lime overnight or longer, then Page 429  |  Top of Article ground the soaked mixture with stone tools, using a mano (a long tube-shaped stone) and a metate (a smooth stone surface). This created a thick dough called zacan. The Mayas found many ways to use zacan. They added water to make atole, a thin gruel they drank for breakfast. The women would often put a lump of the zacan mixed with a little water into a gourd and send it with the men in the family to eat as a meal while working in the fields.

Maize was also cooked in stews or baked inside corn husks with other ingredients, such as beans, chilies, or turkey meat, to make tamales. The most common use for the maize in the twenty-first century is to make the ground meal into tortillas, flat corn pancakes. Many people believe the Mayas have been making tortillas for thousands of years, but some scholars believe the Spanish brought the concept of tortillas to the Americas.

The Maya frequently ate beans with their tortillas, or with zacan in soups and stews. The Maya cooks often added hot chili peppers to beans to give them flavor. Beans added important protein to the maize-based diet. Since the Mayas did not eat much meat, protein was very important to their health.


For Maya men, the standard item of clothing was the ex, a loincloth formed from a long strip of cotton wound around the waist several times and then passed between the legs, with flaps hanging both in front and in back. If the weather was cool, they might also wear a pati, a cotton square draped over their shoulders like a cape. Maya women usually wore a short skirtlike garment. Sometimes they wore a shawl, but women were not expected to wear clothing on their upper bodies unless it was cool. Maya women also sometimes wore dresses. Their clothing was often dyed in bright colors and patterns.

Children usually did not wear clothes. Maya people went barefoot much of the time, but they also wore sandals, usually made from deer skin and tied with cords. Jewelry was very common, even among the poor farming people. Most Maya children had multiple body piercings for jewelry—the nose, ears, and various other parts of the face; the holes were gradually enlarged to hold ornamental tubes and plugs.

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All Mayas, except slaves, wore their hair long. Their hairstyles tended to show off the long foreheads specially shaped with the use of boards in infancy. Women wore ponytails gathered at the top of their head, or sometimes they braided their hair using colorful ornaments. Men often burned an area in the middle of their scalp to make it bald, but they let all the hair around the bare spot grow long. They often created elaborate hairstyles with many ponytails, ties, and bands. Huge headdresses were often worn.

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Xocolatl: The Drink of the Gods

Either the Mayas or the Olmecs (pronounced OLE-mecks) were the probable "inventors" of chocolate. The Mayas have been consuming it as a drink since 100 C.E. or before. The early Mesoamericans discovered the cacao tree, theobroma cacao (which means "food of the gods" in Greek), in the tropical forests. At first they removed the pods from the wild trees, but soon the Mayas (in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco) began transplanting cacao trees to their own land to harvest a steady supply of cacao beans.

Cacao trees produce green pods filled with a wet white pulp and cacao beans. The Mayas removed the seeds from the pod and allowed them to ferment (a process of breaking down their elements) until they turned dark brown. Then the seeds were dried, roasted, and ground to form a thick paste. For the drink the Mayas called xocolatl, meaning "bitter water" (since they usually did not sweeten their cocoa) they added chili and ground maize.

There was no whipped cream in the Maya world, since there were no cows, but the Mayas liked foam on their chocolate. To achieve this, they placed an empty pot on the ground and, from a standing position, poured the chocolate into the pot below. They repeated this, pouring the
A cacao tree with beans.  Robert van der Hilst/Corbis. A cacao tree with beans. © Robert van der Hilst/Corbis. chocolate from pot to pot until there was a good head of foam. They usually drank their chocolate hot.

Chocolate was mainly consumed by the upper class Mayas in the Classic era, but its use probably spread to the common people in later years. Some Maya people drank chocolate with every meal.

Cacao beans were also used as currency, or money, in the Maya world. Bijal P. Trivedi noted a few Maya prices in a National Geographic (2002) article stating, "Early explorers to the region found that four [cacao] beans could get you a pumpkin, 10 a rabbit and 100 would buy you a slave."

Village administration and military duty

By the Classic Maya era beginning in 250 C.E., most villages and farmland were under the rule of one of the large Maya city-states nearby. The king of the city and his priests and nobles were the supreme rulers of the farmers. The laws, taxes, and decisions about war all came from the city. Commoners did not deal directly with the elite; local leaders were Page 431  |  Top of Article appointed by the king to make sure taxes were paid, labor duties fulfilled, and the laws of the city-state obeyed.

Another function of the appointed local leaders was to assemble and maintain local armies. The Maya city-states generally kept their store of weapons in the city, but they took their soldiers from local militias made up of the men and boys of farming towns. The men were trained in hand-to-hand combat, using spears and axes with stone or obsidian blades, and throwing weapons, like lances, slings, and even bows and arrows. Soldiers usually wore a kind of armor made of cotton. In battle, most soldiers painted their faces. Officers of the armies were from the city's nobility.


Though they worked hard most of their days, farmers and craftspeople who lived outside large city-states were not isolated from the city and its culture (arts, language, beliefs, Page 432  |  Top of Article customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought shared by a group of people at a particular time). Huge festivals were held on a regular basis—generally at the end of every twenty-day month and on other important occasions as well. Thousands of people from miles around would gather in the city's plaza. Religious ceremonies, led by priests in elaborate costumes, usually began the festivities, which often featured ritual bloodlettings or human sacrifice (see Chapter 21 for more information). After the solemn ceremonies, though, there was generally a great deal of music with everyone joining in the dancing and singing. In the plaza, traders would also bring out their goods from far and wide.

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In the Eye of the Beholder

The ancient Maya had a strong sense of personal beauty. Some of their standards of beauty and style might stand out in twenty-first-century fashion, but certainly many examples of contemporary fashion would probably have shocked them, too.

  • While a Maya baby was still young, its parents placed its head between two boards and then bound them very tightly together. The babies were left like this for a few days. Baby's heads are very soft and quite easy to reshape. This procedure flattened the forehead and caused the head to slope backward, creating the distinctive head shape seen in Maya art. The Mayas found this very attractive.
  • The Mayas thought being cross-eyed was very appealing, so mothers of young children tied a bead to a hair or string hanging between the child's eyes. The eyes, drawn to the bead between them, would cross, and it was every mother's hope her child's eyes would remain crossed.
  • Mayas often decorated their teeth. They began by filing the front teeth to a sharp point, then attached small plates of jade or obsidian into holes on the front of the filed teeth.
  • Tattoos were also very popular among the Mayas. Both men and women had intricate designs and pictures tattooed all over their faces and bodies. The process was quite painful—after the artist painted the tattoo on the skin with vegetable dyes, he or she would cut into the skin so the tattoo would be permanently absorbed into the skin. This cutting frequently caused infections and illness.
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Other than festivals, the Maya attended Mesoamerican ball games called pok-a-tok in some Mayan languages (see Chapter 21 for more information on the Maya ball game). Maya children played their own versions of the ball game, and played with dolls and board games as well.

Maya sculpture of the head of a man with tattoos.  Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis. Maya sculpture of the head of a man with tattoos. © Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis.

The survival of the Maya

Throughout the long history of the Maya, the powerful and wealthy city-states were built through the intense labor of the common workers. The cities thrived, and their people ate the maize and beans the farmers grew. But eventually, one by one, all of the great Maya cities and city-states collapsed and were abandoned. The farmers in many cases were forced to move to another location, mainly to be around a secure water source. In many of the Petén (Guatemala) regions, farming communities were either severely reduced by malnutrition (sickness due to starvation) and disease after the decline of the city-states, or the people simply moved away.

In the northern Yucatán lowlands, and in isolated areas throughout the Maya world, the rise and fall of the Maya city-states may not have had the same devastating impact on farmers' lives. Archeologists have found evidence some farming villages continued to exist in Petén long after the Classic era. At the time of the Spanish conquest in the mid-sixteenth century, many Maya villages were still leading the same lives and practicing the same traditions that had been in existence for many centuries.

The Spanish, in their enthusiasm to convert the Maya to Christianity and to incorporate them into the Spanish culture, caused great changes. The new economic and political systems exploited the native people and caused devastation Page 434  |  Top of Article
Painting depicting scenes of daily life in a Maya village. The Art Archive/Antochiw Collection Mexico/Mireille Vautier. Painting depicting scenes of daily life in a Maya village. The Art Archive/Antochiw Collection Mexico/Mireille Vautier. among the Mayas. When Spanish control ended, the new governments were just as bad or worse. The Maya population and its culture, however, did not disappear. Their culture had been disrupted from outside, but the Maya found ways to live on.

In the early 2000s there were about six million Maya people living in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The largest group, the Yucatecs, number around three hundred thousand and live in the Mexican state of Yucatán. Two other large groups, the Tzotzil (pronounced so-TSEEL) and the Tzeltal (pronounced sel-TALL), numbering around two hundred thousand combined, live in the Mexican state of Chiapas. In Guatemala, Mayas make up about half of the population. About 40 percent of the Guatemalan population speaks an Amerindian language (language of an indigenous, or native, person from North or South America)—mostly the Mayan languages—as their first or primary language. The modern Maya religion, however, has become a mix of Christianity and Maya spirituality and traditions.

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The Lacandón Maya

The Mayas strongly resisted the Spanish invasion of their lands in the early 1500s. One group of Mayas escaped the Spanish influence altogether, having fled when they learned the Spaniards had arrived. This group hid out in the Lacandón tropical wilderness of Chiapas and lived their lives hidden from the Europeans.

More than two centuries later, in 1790, the Spanish made a last attempt to defeat the Lacandón Maya in order to convert them to Christianity and assimilate them into New Spain. Even then, the Lacandón Mayas were able to resist the Spanish and were left in peace until the mid-twentieth century. They continued to practice Maya traditions and a distinctive form of their religion.

By the 1940s people were coming into the jungles of Chiapas to tap chicle trees for their rubbery sap, the main ingredient in chewing gum. There were also people seeking to cut down the forests' mahogany trees for their wood. This new invasion of Maya land proved to be a disaster for the Lacandón. The strangers entering their environment exposed the Lacandón to new diseases, causing terrible epidemics that killed many.

For a time in the 1980s, there were only about two hundred surviving Lacandón members, and their forests rapidly disappeared due to growing demands for lumber. Researchers continue to make great efforts to observe the Lacandón Maya in their own environment. Small parcels of forest have been set aside for their use, but rapid deforestation (cutting down the rainforests) threatens the Lacandón Maya and other peoples as well.

For More Information


Gallenkamp, Charles. Maya: The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization, 3rd revised edition. New York: Viking, 1985.

Galvin, Irene Flum. The Ancient Maya. New York: Benchmark Books, 1997.

The Magnificent Maya. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1993.

Web Sites

Adams, Richard E.W. "Romance Versus Reality in the Ancient Maya Civilization." Cosmos Club Journal. (accessed on September 22, 2004).

Ebersole, Rene S. "What Lies Beneath: Discovery of a Maya Palace in Guatemala, and Insights into the Maya Civilization around Cancuen." Page 436  |  Top of Article Current Science, November 17, 2000. Available at (accessed on September 22, 2004).

Gugliotta, Guy. "In Guatemalan Jungle, A Mayan Wall Street? Enormous Palace Was Major Trading Center." Washington Post, September 8, 2000. Available at (accessed on September 22, 2004).

Saurez, Ray. "Lost and Found: Interview with Arthur Demarest." PBS Online Newshour, September 11, 2000. Available at (accessed on September 22, 2004).

Trivedi, Bijal P. "Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya 'Teapot.'" National Geographic Today, July 17, 2002. Available at (accessed on September 22, 2004).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424400041