What Part Did Agricultural Practices Play in the Growth and Collapse of the Ancient Maya Civilization?

Many Maya communities today are probably living and farming much like their ancestors did 2,000 years ago. They usually have a communal farm for the less fortunate: widows, elderly, sickly, that everyone takes turns tending. Then each family group has a small plot, today it is called a "milpa". They still clear the land the way their ancestors did before they had metal tools or machines, by a method called slash and burn. Just before planting you can see (and smell) smokey fires all over the Maya region as farmers clear their land by burning and then plant in the rich ash. The problem is that after only 2 or 3 years the soil is depleted of nutrients and a plot must be left fallow for several years. Still, when you consider that the soil in the Maya region is naturally poor for farming, the slash and burn method actually was and still is a sound technology.

In fact, slash and burn is perfectly acceptable when there is and abundance of land, but if the population is getting too large to be supported by the land, then leaving large areas fallow for many years would be impossible. The alternative - trying to farm depleted soil would result in famine. Some archaeologists believe that this was a factor in the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization. Perhaps not, because there is also evidence of some very innovative alternative farming techniques, such as using terracing along mountainsides and building up raised planting beds in marshy areas.

The Maya today (and probaly in the past) make very good use of their land in the way they plant. They plant corn (maize) beans and squash on the same plot. Corn takes nitrogen from the soil and beans replace it, so they are a good combination. Corn needs to be planted in rows in order to cross pollinate and the beans need to climb a trellis so they are trained to grow up the corn stalks. Since the young bean plants need a cooler temperature, the corn provides some shade. Meanwhile the squash plants grow along the ground (they also like some shade when just starting) filling in between the rows and by the time the corn is harvested the squash plants are ready to take over the field.

When the corn is ripe, Maya farmers bend the ears over so that they dry out in the sun on the stalk and in this way they can be stored and preserved for the months between harvests.

Maize kernels are ground by the women. Traditionally this was done between a stone pallet and a long grinding stone, but today women usually bring their corn to be ground by machine. Corn is their primary staple and the Maya women make many meals with the cornmeal. Mixed with water it becomes a milky drink called posol which is often drunk for breakfast. Patted and toasted on a griddle it is a tortilla and can be eaten alone or wrapped around beans and sometimes meat. It can also be use as a coating on peppers to make tomalley. Peppers are another popular food with the Maya — the hotter the better.

Many people don't realize that some of the foods we take for granted were unknown in the European and Asian cultures until they were discovered in the Americas. Corn, peppers, and tomatoes were all first discoverd in the Americas. In fact, Columbus was seaching for a faster route to Inida to buy black pepper. When he returned to Spain, not with peppercorns but a plant that could be used to spice the bland European dishes, they called that plant "pepper". Potatoes were also unknown in Europe prior to being brough back from Peru. My favorite food is from the Maya - chocolate. The Maya actually used the cacao bean as money — that's how valuable it was. Only the very rich could afford to take their money and make it into a delicious cup of chocolate!

Meat is not often eaten by the Maya, mainly because today they are very poor and in ancient times there were few native animals that were appropriate for livestock. They would keep small, hairless dogs as pets and also to eat, as well as turkeys. Like most indigenous peoples of the Americas, the men hunted for game, such as birds, rabbits and deer. There were also monkeys and jaguars, but there is no indication that they were eaten. Some ancient paintings show Maya hunters using a blow gun and in their creation story the hero twins kill a giant bird with a blow gun. Lacandon Maya today use bows and arrows, but there is no indication of them in their ancient art, but spears ands knives are shown. These were tipped with sharpened stone, flint or obsidian, as the ancient Maya did not forge metal. Today the machete is a tool every Maya man uses with great skill.

Today, and back in ancient times, the Maya traditionally divided roles between men and women much the same as peoples around the world. Men were hunters and women worked the milpa, prepared the food, raised the children, tended the animals and wove their clothing. In other words, women had all the work and men had all the fun. But today that is changing in Maya communities as everywhere else. Maya women have formed cooperatives to sell their weaving. Men are working on the milpa and often leave their families for months at a time to work on ranches or in factories.

Thank you for your interest. If people around the world would take the time to learn about other cultures, perhaps they will not be so quick to destroy them. They can respect that other people see things differently, do things differently, and that it is alright for us to be different and sharing the same planet.

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