Maya Agriculture

Maya Agriculture




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Maya Agriculture


Much of the soil in the ancient Mayan Empire was extremely rocky. In the Yucatan the ground is very rocky, however vegetation thrives. It thrives because this area receives about 36 inches of rain per year. Water is also found in the Yucatan in natural wells called cenotes. These cenotes are fed by underground rivers. Where the Mayans couldn't rely on cenotes they built cisterns to collect rainwater. The ancient Mayans called these cisterns “chultunes.” Most of the Yucatan Peninsula appears to be only scrub vegetation, however this is not a natural phenomenon. Instead, it can be attributed to the Mayan farmers method of field rotation. Native farmers used a field for two years (until depleted)and then they abandoned it and planted another field. Then after five years passed, they returned to the abandon field and prepared it for use. They did this by slashing and burning the natural vegetation that had grown. The burning of the vegetation returns the depleted resources to the ground making it fertile again.

Basic concepts such as crop rotation and irrigation were not practiced. The ancient Maya used basic stone tools and flint axes to clear vines and underbrush. It was virtually impossible to cut down an enormous tree with such crude tools, so the larger trees were usually ringed with fire and killed off several years in advance. After the bushes and vines dried they were burned off. Seeds were planted just prior to the rainy season. The seeds were planted in shallow holes with digging sticks. Usually, corn seeds are planted, but sometimes squash seeds were alternated. If the rain didn't arrive at the right time, it meant great economic hardship. One man would usually work a plot or milpa of about 10,000 square feet annually. Most of the plots were close to the owners home. Weeds were usually hoed with a flint knife soon after they germinated. In ancient Mayan times, in three months a man could grow enough food in his milpa to feed his family for a year.

The ancient Maya grew pumpkins, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, chili peppers, tomatoes, chote, avocados, breadfruit, papaya, cotton, tobacco, sweet potatoes, vanilla, cacao, and a wide variety of wild fruit. Ancient Mayans domesticated turkeys, bees, ducks, and dogs. A small hairless mute dog was most prized for eating. However, as soon as cattle, pigs, and sheep were introduced by the Spaniards the Mayans stopped consuming dog.