Mayan society

Polygamy was unknown, but concubinage was permitted, and divorce was easy. Marriages were performed by the priests, with much ceremonial rejoicing, and preceded by a solemn confession and a baptismal rite, known as the “rebirth”, without which there could be no marriage.

No one could marry out of his own rank or without the consent of the chief of the district.

Mayan agriculture and Diet

The Mayans were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.

While the Maya diet varies, depending on the local geography, maize remains the primary staple now as it was centuries ago. Made nutritionally complete with the addition of lime, the kernels are boiled, ground with a metate and mano, then formed by hand into flat tortillas that are cooked on a griddle that is traditionally supported on three stones.

Chile peppers, beans and squash are still grown in the family farm plot (milpa) right along with the maize, maximizing each crop’s requirements for nutrients, sun, shade and growing surface. Agriculture was based on slash and burn farming which required that a field be left fallow for 5 to 15 years after only 2 to 5 years of cultivation. But there is evidence that fixed raised fields and terraced hillsides were also used in appropriate areas.

The Maya farmer cultivated corn, beans, cacao, chile, maguey, bananas, and cotton, besides giving attention to bees, from which he obtained both honey and wax.

Various fermented drinks were prepared from corn, maguey, and honey. They were much given to drunkenness, which was so common as hardly to be considered disgraceful.

Chocolate was the favourite drink of the upper classes. Cacao beans, as well as pieces of copper, were a common medium of exchange. Very little meat was eaten, except at ceremonial feasts, although the Maya were expert hunters and fishers. A small “barkless” dog was also eaten.


The ordinary garment of men was a cotton breechcloth wrapped around the middle, with sometimes a sleeveless shirt, either white or dyed in colors.

The women wore a skirt belted at the waist, and plaited their hair in long tresses. Sandals were worn by both sexes. Tattooing and head-flattening were occasionally practised, and the face and body were always painted. The Maya, then as now, were noted for personal neatness and frequent use of both cold and hot baths.

Mayan Military

The Mayans were expert and determined warriors, using the bow and arrow, the dart with throwing-stick, the wooden sword edged with flints, the lance, sling, copper axe, shield of reeds, and protective armour of heavy quilted cotton.

They understood military tactics and signalling with drum and whistle, and knew how to build barricades and dig trenches. Noble prisoners were usually sacrificed to the gods, while those of ordinary rank became slaves.

Their object in war was rather to make prisoners than to kill.


As the peninsula had no mines, the Maya were without iron or any metal excepting a few copper utensils and gold ornaments imported from other countries.

Their tools were almost entirely of flint or other stone, even for the most intricate monumental carving.

For household purposes they used clay pottery, dishes of shell, or gourds. Their pottery was of notable excellence, as were also their weaving, dyeing, and feather work.

Along the coast they had wooden dugout canoes capable of holding fifty persons.


Instead of the ten digits used today, the Maya used a base number of 20. (Base 20 is vigesimal.) They also used a system of bar and dot as “shorthand” for counting. A dot stood for one and a bar stood for five.

Because the base of the number system was 20, larger numbers were written down in powers of 20. We do that in our decimal system too:

for example 32 is 3*10+2. In the Maya system, this would be 1*20+12, because they used 20 as base.

Numbers were written from bottom to top.

Fractions were not used.

Maya merchants often used cocoa beans, which they layed out on the ground, to do their calculations.

The Numbers

   Zero   One   Two   Three   Four   Five   Six   Seven   Eight   Nine   Ten   Eleven   Twelve   Thirteen   Fourteen   Fifteen   Sixteen   Seventeen   Eighteen   Nineteen 
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