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Mayan Society


Mud cores extracted from Lake Puerto Arturo indicate the Mayans began wide spread systematic agriculture c.4000BC-2000BC. A pollen horizon in the mud core shows an enormous shift from natural forest tree pollens to weed pollen, an unmistakable sign of deforestation and agriculture. Interestingly, the original beginning of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, 4 Ahau, 8 cumku, or 3113BC, lies firmly within that horizon. By 2650BC, the horizon displays the height of the replacement, which saw a rebound of forest vegetation in spurts periodically over 2000 years.

In the beginning, the southern Pacific Littoral region had little trouble cultivating the volcanic-ash-rich soils of the coast lands. However, in the wetlands of the central lowlands, with no year-round water sources other than cenotes (sinkholes) scattered throughout the area, the Mayans needed to develop other techniques to cultivate the easily erodible soil.

Many scientists believe the Mayans practiced slash-and-burn techniques similar to modern farmers in the area today. A NASA archaeologist, Tom Sever, argues though that large dense populations of the ancient Yucatan vastly outstripped the demands of the much sparser modern region. The first year after slash-and-burn, the land yields 100% of its potential, the next year 60%, and less and less thereafter. So in three to five years, the farmers move on and slash and burn another area. Sever believes such a process never could have sustained both the forest and the people very long, certainly not the thousands of years the Mayan civilization flourished within.

Sever thinks that the Maya most likely utilized extensive water management projects (canals/reservoirs), elevated terraces to prevent rain water erosion, transporting fertile swamp soil to the terraces, farming the bajos utilizing 40% more of the landscape, arboriculture (tending tree orchards), crop rotation to extend fertility, and tilling charcoal compost into the soil as fertilizer. To prevent rain water from draining and being absorbed into the soil below, the Maya lined the canals and reservoirs with clay.

Mirador Bajo

The combination of a large and varied diet supplemented with hunting and garden horticulture, probably helped the Maya population to thrive. The mainstay of the Maya diet consisted of maize (Ixim), beans (B'u'ul), squashes (Lek), chilis (Ik'), sweet potatoes (Kamot), and fruits such as cassavas, tomatoes, yuccas, manoics, papayas, avocados, and guavas. Other tree crops also included cacao for chocolate, Zapodilla, Ujuxte (breadnut tree), fibers from the Chicozapote tree to produce chewing gum, and rubber from hevea trees to create balls, water proof clothes, and shoes.  Mayan farmers stored crops in above-ground cribs of wood or dug out pits called chultun to keep crops dry.

The Elites

Scholars believe over 10 percent of the Mayan society consisted of the elites, called itz'at winik (wise people) noted in the text of Tamarindito. The caste attained literacy and wealth, and passed down status through long lineages, including positions in the government and society. Murals in vase paintings depict the elites surrounding the king at court, including priests, warriors, scribes, musicians, merchants, tribute payers, and painters.

No clear mark delineates between different people socially in Mayan society; scholars think that social mobility allowed a number of middle class people to attain functions primarily associated with the nobility, and many intermediary levels and echelons probably existed between the three major social divisions overall. The most important priests almost always remained in the upper tiers of the nobility, as did a number of painters of polychrome vases, who signed their names and titles on the wares, demonstrating elite status.

Middle Class

Lower ranking priests, artisans, soldiers and merchants probably resided in the middle tier. Archaeological excavations reveal that many different sizes and types of housing existed, such as stone houses with thatched roofs but containing rich caches of wealth, suggesting varying levels of wealth.


Art rarely depicted commoners, and texts hardly mention the people in writings. Archaeologists speculate that the commoners were mostly farmers, laborers, servants, and slaves. A volcanically preserved site at Ceren, on the outskirts of San Andres in western El Salvador, gives scientists invaluable insights into the lives of the common peoples c.600AD. The huts consisted of adobe homes, well stocked with cooking pots and food, suggesting a way of life even more well off than many modern Salvadoran workers living in the area today. 

Food and Drink

On a regular basis, people ate maize, beans, and squash. Women primarily prepared food, softening the maize kernels, grinding the flour with stones, stewing tamales (a wrap that consisted of meats, chilis, and chava herbs native to Guatemala, aka Mayan spinach, wrapped in ear corn leaves), and foraging wild plants and fruits. Analysis of skeletal remains indicate a high level of nutrition and nourishment among even commoners. Beans and maize provided a complete chain of  amino acids. On special occasions, the commoners supplemented the diet with venison, turkey, and shellfish.

Maize Corn

The women prepared the maize corn (mainly the Nal-Tel species), by boiling and soaking it in lime water and then draining it into a gourd colander. While wet, the corn was ground on a metate, a small stone table, with a mano cylindrical hand-stone. Worked into a paste, the cooks mixed it with water to brew atole drinks or to bake cakes and tortillas, which were roasted on a flat pottery griddle and eaten with beans and chili.

Metate Grinding stone

Bishop Diego de Landa described in the 16th century that the Mayans cooked maize in three ways. Mayans especially loved the drink Atole, which consisted of a gruel drank warm at morning and cold at lunch.

Nobility favored the brew, mixing the maize with chocolate, and farmers preferred it with chili peppers toasted with ground squash seeds, honey, and herbs. Sakha' or posol, a mixture of water and sour-dough, often accompanied farmers into the fields in gourds, allowing the workers the daily maize consumption through drinking without cumbersome utensils or baskets.

The corn gruel atole drink often contained added crushed flowers with chocolate and peanut butter. A red variety of atole included an annatto dye, probably a religious symbolic drink meant to mimic human blood. Mayan graves contained atole vessels buried along with the deceased; the people wanted to carry the drink into the scary underworld afterlife.

Mayan apicultures often raised special hives of Xunan-Cab bees (stingless bees), in logs, gourds, or clay pots. The Xunan-Cab bee, which naturally pollinates vanilla orchids, produces a honey that contains less sugar than the European honeybee, but supposedly tastes better. The Maya liked to mix the honey with cacao, maize, chili, and vanilla extract into wine. The bee probably inspired festivals to the honey god, Ah Mucan Cab, celebrated with the honey wine.


Shaman priests performed cures through religious incantations and herbal remedies. According to native books surviving from the Colonial period, such as "The Ritual of the Bacabs", disease involved disharmony within the soul, and a sacrilege to the gods. Much like in early Europe, the priests thought bleeding might relieve the disharmony along with offerings made to the gods. Shamans prescribed an herbal cakked kanlol, a natural diurectic that relieved heart conditions. On the other hand, priests mistakenly considered tobacco a remedy for asthma and other ailments.

Mayans often believed drinking balche excessively and then vomiting might purge the body of worms. Ointments mashed from tree bark and resins applied to the skin prevented mosquito bites.

The Maya also applied vanilla extracts and crushed flowers and herbs as perfumes.

Mayan Beauty

The Mayan peoples preferred the forehead sloped back, an effect the people achieved by binding an infants head with boards, a process called trepanning. Within a few days, the desired shape formed. Recent skeletal remains indicate that approximately 90 percent of the Mayans performed the binding of the head, a shape that supposedly distinguished the people as being Mayan; the form mimicked the shape of an ear of maize corn, the material the gods shaped the people out of in the Mayan creation myths.

In art, the people often possess slightly crossed eyes, pierced lips, noses, and ears, and teeth filed into patterns and inlaid with jade, mimicking the teeth of the jaguar. The eyes probably crossed over time by tying soft tiny balls on strands of a child's hair dangling between the eyes. A removable artificial nose bridge also extended the very roman-like profile of the sloped forehead the Mayans favored so much.

By painting and scarring the skin, the Maya achieved tattooing, a ritual men only partook in after marrying. Scenes of warriors on vases often possess stripes of red,white, and black paint. On a purely superficial level, painting the body with red and white surely imbued a warrior permanently with a fierce expression or "war face", but, on the other hand, warfare contained a very ritualized religious context, as battles usually only entailed a few men trying to gain a noble captive for sacrifice.White paint around the eyes surrounded by red paint might contain a deeper meaning.

Filed Teeth and chin/nose/ear plugs (Movie still of "Apocalypto")

Red and white stripes additionally might symbolize a dichotomy of life (red blood) vs death (pale complexion), the struggle between the earth and the underworld played out on the battlefield, the symbolic reenactment of the releasing of the dead hero twins from the g rasp of the Xilbabans in Mayan mythology.

Unmarried men often wore black paint, as did people undergoing ritual purification and fasting. Interestingly, such a connection might suggest an image of negation or emptiness; in other words, a man remained non-existent until a man married, in much the same way a person ceased to exist while severing the connection to the body and merging with the spirits by fasting and anointing the body with cleansing water. Priests wore blue body paint, the color of the blue sky and the heavens, designating priests as the messengers of the gods above. 


Mayans embellished garments with feathers and animal skins, tailored to fit loosely around the skin, draped into a scarf-like jacket around the chest in a sarong, and around the hips as a male kilt, and between the legs for a breech-clout. Knots secured the clothing with a woven belt with long tassels. Head holes cut into the cloth allowed a loos-fitting shirt to be added, or a huipil, a blouse for women.  The whole outfit lay over the person's body in layers: jacket over the sarong, a hip wrap over the skirt, and kilt over the breech-clout.

Women liked wrapping the hair above in turbans, or styles interwoven with cloth. Elaborate male headdresses varied, consisting of animal heads, hides, feathers, deity figures, and jewels. The people fashioned sandals out of untanned deer skins, hemp, ornamented with jaguar skin, and pompoms.

Most art depicts such adornments on the nobility, but no proof exists to discredit usage by other classes. Classic era images depict goddesses in mythological scenes without covering the breasts.


Surprisingly men wore far more jewelry than women. Elite men often wore jade nose plugs, ornate ear plugs, and heavy ritual belts, beaded collars and necklaces with pendants. The ear plugs consisted of semi-precious stones so heavy, the earrings dramatically stretched the ear lobes.

During the Postclassic era, the depletion of the jade sources forced the people to adopt turquoise and serpentine with shells as the main material of jewelry. Gold and tumpago (a copper-gold alloy), was popular in bracelets, and amber stones set in the tumpago alloy often functioned as nose plugs.


Turtle carapaces struck with a palm produced sad, doleful sounds. Immense hollow wooden drums called tunkul, struck with a long wood stick tipped with rubber, produced noises that many heard from a far distance. Wooden or ceramic maracas accompanied drums, a rattle decorated with plumes, containing pellets and seeds inside. Long wooden twisted gourds and conch shells served as horns. Male and female figurine shaped whistles (ocarinas), produce a sound like a piccolo, often fashioned from deer bone, ceramics, wood, or reeds. Male figurine flutes at the Belizean site of Pacbitun produce deeper notes in pitch than the female ones.


In Mayan culture, the dance served to create sacred inner spaces that sought to bridge the spiritual gap between the earth and the underworld. The ritual is characterized as the act of transformation of the human into supernatural beings through visionary trances. Hallucinogenic drugs and entheogenic medicines probably saw use in such ceremonies. Once a person achieved the trance, the human transformed into the wayob or soul companion. The companion's face are seen on the ritual masks and the costumes of the dancers depicted on the Bonampak mural and ceramic vessels, embodying animals such as jaguars, birds of prey, or strange demon-like monsters.

With the soul companion's help, the person established communication with the underworld. People who traveled to the otherworld told stories later to people of the rivers and trees that existed there. Through the dance, the people might morph into gods, and gods into humans if only for even a moment. The Altar de Sacrificios Vase of the Late Classic Period, depicts the dances of the coessences, or wayob companions. One man kneeling on the ground appears to be cutting off his head with a man floating above him. The image suggests that by "losing one’s head" (mind) through the ingestion of hallucinogens or bloodletting, the shaman frees the soul companion from the body. One of the floating figures holds a death head above another figure, further reconstructing the visual metaphor of "losing one's head"; the shaman in effect, through ritualistic dance, allowed the potent powers of the subconscious mind to be released then viewed from above by the more "conscious" soul companion.

The Wayeb Dance processional depicted on the Lower Temple of the Jaguars at Chichen Itza, involved many participants. The dance probably took place at the end of the year, a dangerous period of five days presided over by Pawahtun. During those days the Underworld opened up and harmful forces such as disease, death, and political upheaval threatened to topple the equilibrium of the Middleworld. In order to avert such disasters, the Maya marshaled together as much divine energy as possible, by summoning k’uhul, the sacred one. The people tried to attract the god’s attention by coordinating many individuals' movements in unison to the rhythms of k’uhul. During the ceremony, the king wore gold rings around the eyes, lending the ruler extra perceptional viewing abilities, much like the polished mirrors that shamans used to divine the future.

The importance of music and dance is deeply rooted in the Mayan creation myth of the hero twins written in the sacred Popul Vuh text. According to the legend, the Hero Twins rose back to life and enchanted the demons of Xibalba with dance and magic, through the Poorwill dance, the Weasel, and the Armadillo dance, bringing things miraculously back to life. Amazed, the Lords of Death commanded the twins to perform; the twins did, but did not resurrect the animals, which diminished the powers of the Xibalbans over humans. Through dance, the people tried to reenact the deeds of the hero twins, please the gods, and appease the Lords of Death.



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A great deal of source info on the page comes from this book:

Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World The ancient Mayan civilization of southern Mexico and northern Central America has long been described as "mysterious," even though scholars have been studying this culture for hundreds of years. Our view of the Maya has changed dramatically based on the various findings of these scholars; what were once thought of as "vacant ceremonial centers," inhabited by only a few calendar priests and used as places of ritual by the surrounding peasant farmers, have now been redefined as ancient thriving cities of thousands of Maya. Hierogliphic inscriptions, once thought to be astrological mumbo-jumbo, now read as names of historical individuals and the cities they ruled. The Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World provides a comprehensive and accessible reference to the greatest and most mysterious of civilizations, hailed for its contributions to science, mathematics, and technology. The book focuses on recent groundbreaking discoveries while presenting the civilization's earlist beginnings to its conquest by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Each chapter is supplemented by an extensive bibliography as well as photographs. original line drawings, and maps. Different sections include civilization and archaeology, evolution, geography, society and government, astronomy and the calendar, funerary beliefs and customs, and many more.