Maya civilization

Maya Society

The first people to occupy the Yucatán Peninsula were hunters and gatherers who arrived some 11,000 years ago. These nomadic people lived in small family bands. Around 2500 B.C. they started cultivating maize and abandoned a nomadic way of life to settle in villages surrounded by cornfields.

The Maya created arable land by using a "slash-and-burn" technique to clear the forests. They planted maize and secondary crops such as beans, squash, and tobacco. In the highlands to the west, they terraced the slopes on mountainsides; in the lowlands, they cleared the jungle for planting. After a period of two years, they moved their fields to new locations, allowing the old fields to lie fallow for ten years before reusing them.

They lived in small villages consisting of household compounds occupied by extended families. Their thatched-roof houses were usually one-room huts with walls of interwoven wooden poles covered with dried mud. These huts were used primarily for sleeping; daily chores such as cooking took place outdoors in the central communal compound. The division of labour between men and women was clearly defined: the men looked after building huts and caring for the cornfields, and the women prepared food, made clothing, and tended to the family's domestic needs. These ancient farming methods and family traditions have persisted over the centuries and continue to be followed in many rural communities today.

(left) The village of Dzibilchaltún.
(centre) At the cenote.
(right) Men prepare to transport terracotta pots (used to store food and water)

By the Middle Preclassic period Olmec beliefs and ideas about hierarchical methods of organizing society had probably infiltrated the Maya population. The southern Maya in the mountain valleys chose to unite under high-ranking chiefs of kings, but most of the lowland Maya resisted the pressure to conform, preferring tribal confederacies that recognized no power above their village patriarchs. The Late Preclassic period witnessed the emergence of the ahau, or high king, and the rise of kingdoms throughout Maya lands. For the next thousand years the principles of kingship dominated Maya life.

Within each Maya kingdom, society was organized hierarchically, including kings, nobles, teachers, scribes, warriors, architects, administrators, craftsmen, merchants, labourers, and farmers. Besides the capital, outlying subsidiary sites ranged from sizeable towns down to hamlets and extended-family farming compounds.

There may be several reasons why the Maya moved away from the small farming communities ruled by local officials to the complex kingdoms of the Classic period. Finding ways to collect rainwater and creating more arable land for agriculture played a major role in bringing about these changes. A sizeable labour force was organized to build and maintain the waterworks (reservoirs, cisterns, and canals) and tend the cornfields. These innovations set the stage for increased food production, creating a surplus that led to enhanced trade with neighbouring states, and subsequent population growth. The need for a government to administer the intricacies of expanded urban and rural activities may in part explain why the Maya adopted the king as head of state.

More and more arable land was taken up by growing cities that continued to swell in size, partly owing to the influx of people arriving from outside the region. A growing population, drought, and crop failure may have led to serious food shortages and malnutrition. When crops failed, people may have been forced to move elsewhere to survive. Other factors in the collapse of the southern lowland cities around A.D. 900. may have been:

  • the escalation of hostilities later in the Classic period;
  • the high price of increased warfare;
  • the expense of maintaining kings and nobles, and of building higher and more elaborate temples;
  • and the practice of taking commoners for human sacrifice (in the Early Classic period, only kings and captured nobles were used as human sacrifices).
Whatever the reasons, the Maya decided to return to a simpler form of life as farmers of maize -- living in rural villages much as they do today.

The northern Maya also moved into a new phase as they came under the influence of their Toltec neighbours and other groups that settled in the Yucatán. This era continued until the arrival of the Spanish in 1541, which ushered in a dark period that witnessed Maya books burned and attempts made to obliterate the Maya religion.