Monday, January 30, 2012

Ancient Maya Farming

Author's note: This post was last updated on 11/16/17.
Image from the Library of Congress's Flickr page, slightly modified
Across the ancient Maya civilization, it looks like there were different ways of farming. Some of these ways could only be used in certain locations. Currently, with a plan to expand it in the future, this post touches on some of those methods -- including milpa, terrace fields, bajos and aguadas, raised fields, and rejolladas. There is also some information on gender and farming as well as tools.

Milpa was a popular choice for farming across the Maya civilization. Milpa used to be understood as a process that first meant cutting down and burning all the plants on a piece of land -- the ash made the soil more nutritious for plants. Then, it was thought, the Maya farmed there as long as the soil had enough nutrition to grow a good harvest. When the soil wasn't good enough anymore, then another piece of land was turned into a field in the same way, while the first piece of land became forest again. (This kind of farming has other names, one of which is slash and burn.)

It seems now though that the ancient Maya did more than this. They didn't just leave the land to become forest. Instead, they slowly made the field into a garden. Then they gradually let this garden become actual forest, which they would then burn down to start the field again.

Terrace Fields
This kind of field was popular in hilly land in the lowlands. Using terrace fields kept soil from eroding and helped catch rain. 

Archaeologists have found the Maya used more than one kind of terrace to farm. One kind that seems to have been a common choice was the cross-channel terrace. This kind of terrace, which you may see called the weir terrace, is made in a gully that has water pass through it during the rainy season. The Maya would build walls in these gullies so that the silt in the water got caught, adding to the soil's ability to grow plants. 

Another common kind of terrace they liked to use was the contour terrace, which is probably what you think of when it comes to terrace fields. To make them, the ancient Maya built fields into hillsides, kept in place with walls made of stone. Contour fields were the most popular type of terrace used by the ancient Maya who decided to use terraces.

Bajos and Aguadas
The bajo and the aguada are both depressions -- that is, land that isn't as high as the rest of the land around it -- that are in the lowlands. 

Bajos are also what's called a seasonal wetland or seasonal swamp, as the water in it dries during the dry season. There is a layer of dirt at bajos' edges that is great for plants. The ancient Maya may have used this dirt to grow crops.

Aguadas are ponds and lakes that are also seasonal: they dry up in the dry season -- though there are large ones don't dry up all the way -- and get filled with rain during the rainy season. The ancient Maya may have waited until an aguada dried up some, then planted some crops -- and the more the aguada dried, the more they planted. (The ancient Maya also had aguadas that were just for getting water.)

Raised Fields
The Maya area so far looks like it's the oldest part of Mesoamerica where the people used raised fields. The ancient Maya used these fields in places where there was a lot of water naturally in the soil. 

To make a raised field, the ancient Maya dug channels around pieces of land they wanted to farm. They put the dirt from digging the channels onto the pieces of land, which made them higher than the channels. Water from the dirt went into the channels.  Certain animals -- fish as well as turtles -- lived in the canals.

These fields had to be kept in good repair, because the dirt would go back into the channels on its own over time. However, there was something good that came from this -- the Maya would dig up the mud on the bottom of the channels, which had lots of plant nutrition in it, and put it on top of the fields. 

Found in the northern lowlands, a rejollada is a sinkhole that forms in limestone -- in fact, a lot used to be cenotes that got filled in somewhat because of erosion. Rejolladas have more dirt at their bottoms than the land around them, and this dirt that also has more water in it. The air inside rejolladas is different too, as it is not as warm as the land that's higher than it.

The ancient Maya used -- or may have used -- rejolladas as a source of topsoil for growing plants elsewhere. They also farmed -- or may have farmed -- in them. In fact, these sinkholes may have let the ancient Maya grow plants such as cacao, which is a plant that farmers need lots of water to grow.

A planting tool that we know the Maya civilization used to plant things was the dibber -- other names you may find include the dibble stick or even just dibble. A dibber is not complicated. It's a wooden stick that has a pointy end, kind of like a spear or a kabob skewer but a lot less sharp. The Maya used dibbers to make holes with the pointy end, and after they did that they put seeds into the holes.
Another tool known to the ancient Maya was a sort of hatchet or ax. The handle was made of wood, and could be 12 to 16 inches long. The head was a "celt" made of chert. The Maya stuck the head into the handle, near one end. This type of ax/hatchet, according to The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives, was the tool the ancient Maya used the most for farming.

Farming and Gender
As for gender, there's a theory that farming was men's work -- and women did different jobs at the house. However, it's possible that women may have done the job of weeding with men. Another farming job that women might have done with men is harvesting crops.

Google Books: "The Value of Things: Prehistory to Contemporary Commodities in the Maya Region"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Thomas H. Guderjan; 2017

Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey; 2016

University of Florida: Florida Museum: "Advances in Archaeological Practice" Volume 4, No. 3: "Understanding Ancient Maya Agricultural Terrace Systems through Lidar and Hydrological Mapping"; Scott Macrae, Gyles Iannone; 2016

Google Books: "The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millenia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands"; Anabel Ford, Ronald Nigh; 2015

Google Books: "The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context: Case Studies in Resilience and Vulnerability"; Gyles Iannone (editor); 2014

Google Books: "Ancient Households of the Americas: Conceptualizing What Households Do"; John G. Douglass, Nancy Gonlin (editors); 2012

University of Central Florida: STARS: Electronic Theses and Dissertations Masters Thesis (Open Access): "Geographic And Environmental Influence On Maya Settlement Patterns Of The Northwest Yucatan: An Explanation For The Sparsely Settled Western Cenote Zone"; Patrick Rohrer; 2012

Florida Virtual Campus: Electronic Theses and Dissertations: "Agriarian Production and Intensification at a Postclassic Maya Community, Buena Vista, Cozumel, Mexico"; Adolfo Ivan Batun Alpuche; 2009
Google Books: "Ancient Maya Women"; Traci Ardren (editor); 2002

The Pennsylvania State University: Electronic Theses and Dissertations for Graduate School: "Chapter 2: Background and Framework"

The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Shifting Agriculture

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

What does the name Tatiana suggest to you? A third century saint, or one of the last Grand Duchesses of Russia perhaps? How about Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a Russian-American Mayanist who made a breakthrough concerning Mayan writing and history.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born on January 23, 1909 in the river city of Tomsk, located along the Tom River in west central Siberian Russia. Her parents were Alla (nee Nekrassova) and Avenir Proskouriakoff.

Tatiana and her family moved to Philadelphia in 1915, and became permanent residents of the United States two years later, when the Russian Revolution began. In 1930, Tatiana graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor's in architecture. However, she graduated during the Great Depression, and architects were not in great demand.

She then became an anthropology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, she worked as a volunteer at the University Museum. In 1936, Tatiana was invited to go on an expedition to the Pedras Negras conducted by the museum. While there, her job included taking sketches reconstructing various ruins at such places as Tikal, Chiche'n-Itza and Yaxchilan. As she was making these sketches, she saw patterns in the Mayan glyphs.

After working in the field, Tatiana went to work at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. A very methodical person, through carefully taken steps Tatiana figured out that the gylphs on stelae -- tall carved stone monuments -- were writing historical records. These records included things like war victories and coronations. One of her most important tools was an inventory she made of the different kinds of glyphs she saw on the stelae.

A leading Mayanist at the time, J. Eric Thompson, said that he didn't think Tatiana was right. In his eyes, stelae were dedicated to commemorating the passing of time. In fact, he felt it was a horrible idea to think that stelae could talk about things like kingship dates. He went so far as to say it was the same as if a tourist carved graffiti on the famous statue of David. He later changed his opinion however.

In 1971, Tatiana met with David Friedel, now another well-known Mayanist, when he was a first year graduate student. The next year, in the spring of 1972, David took a course from Tatiana -- a course described in the book "A Forest of Kings" as a "looking course". Tatiana taught David about Mayan gylphs in her basement office of the Peabody museum.

At the age of 76, Tatiana died August 30, 1985 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During her life she wrote several books including:

Jade from the Cenote of Sacrifice
An Album of Maya Architecture (1946)
An Inscription on a Jade Probably Carved at Piedras Negras (1944)

Tatiana had also started on a book on Classic Maya history, but died before she could finish it. The work done on the book was edited by Rosemary Joyce, and published as "Maya History".

The New York Times: Tatiana Proskouriakoff Dies; Key Figure in Mayan Studies

Tatiana Proskouriakoff; Char Solomon; 2002

Harvard University Library OASIS: Proskouriakoff, Tatiana, 1909 - 1985.

"A Forest of Kings"; Linda Schele, David Friedel; 1990

University of Texas Press: Maya History

Penn Museum: The Hand of Fate in Tatiana Proskouriakoff's Career

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Sapodilla Tree

Author's note: this post was partly modified on 11/25/17
Part of a sapodilla. W.D. Brush, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

The sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) is one of a variety of trees the ancient Maya viewed as useful. People know it by many names, including sapote, chicozapote, zapote and chico sapote. Native to South America and Central America, it grows the best in north Guatemala, north Belize and in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Sapodilla is a very drought resistant, long-living tree that grows to be 40 to 60 feet tall and has reddish, strong and long-wearing wood so dense it sinks in water. An evergreen, the sapodilla possesses leathery, dark green leaves that, unlike maples and oaks, it never looses.

The tree produces edible, egg-shaped fruit that has brown skin similar to a kiwi’s and grows to be 2 to 3.5 inches across. The fruit’s grainy-textured flesh -- not unlike a pear’s texture -- ranges from orange to brownish in color. The fruit also contains seeds that are black, smooth and shiny.

Ancient Maya Uses
The ancient Maya made good use of the sapodilla tree. They used the tree for its wood, its latex (known to us as chicle) and its fruit.

Sapodilla fruit was a food source for the ancient Maya (as well as the Aztecs and Nicarao). In order to have a source of fruit all year round, the ancient Maya would dry sapodilla fruits.

Ancient Maya shaped the wood of the sapodilla tree into carved lintels and into roof beams for temples. Some of these ancient wooden artifacts are still with us, showing how long lasting the wood can be.

Also, archaeologists have discovered that -- at least in the Preclassic and Classic periods -- the sapodilla’s wood would sometimes be burned. Charcoal found at sites such as Albion Island, Pulltrouser Swamp, and Cuello are thought to come from sapodilla wood. Therefore it is possible that the Maya used sapodilla for firewood.

The ancient Maya used sap from the sapodilla for both their religion and their everyday lives. Chicle was their gum and was used as an ingredient in incense.

A Consideration: In the Art of Pakal's Sarcophagus
The sapodilla shows up more than once on the sarcophagus of Pakal,  a ruler of Palenque. According to Chicle, the tree on his lid is a sapodilla. You can find the tree on the sides of the sarcophagus too -- Pakal's ancestor, Ix Yohl Ik'nal is next to one.

Modern Uses
People still use the sapodilla for some of the same purposes that the ancient Maya used it for. One purpose -- though not as common as it once was -- is for chicle, which is used for gum.

The second purpose that people still cultivate sapodilla trees for is the fruit, which was exported back across the Atlantic by the Spanish Conquistadors. Sapodilla cultivars are found in tropical regions around the world, from Mesoamerican countries to countries such as India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Locally grown and marketed sapodilla fruit can even be found in southern Florida.

A third way people still use the sapodilla tree like the ancient Maya did is for its timber. People turn sapodilla wood into floors, handles for tools and into furniture.


"Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Gillian P. Schultz; 2009

The University of Texas at Austin University of Texas Libraries: "Framing the Portrait: Towards an Understanding of Elite Late Classic Maya Representation at Palenque Mexico"; Kaleyy Rae Spencer; May 2007

Purdue University: Sapodilla: A Potential Crop For Subtropical Climates

The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Sapodilla

Rainforest Alliance: Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota)

Image Credit:

USDA: National Resources Conservation Service: PLANTS Database: Image Gallery:Achras zapota L. - ACZA2

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chicle: Chewing Gum of the Maya

Author's note: this post was slightly modified on 11/26/17.

Chicle is the often white-colored resin that comes from the sapodilla, a species of tree native to the Caribbean and to Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamericans such as the ancient Maya (as well as the Cocle and the Aztecs) made use of this resin in various ways.

The ancient Mayans -- who also made use of the sapodilla's wood and fruit -- chewed chicle as a gum. They believed that chewing chicle kept your breath fresh and also helped to keep you from feeling hungry or thirsty.

Archaeologists have also found pieces of copal -- a resin used for incense -- that are wrapped in chicle (samples from the Cenote of Sacrifice also had a layer of rubber). Why the copal was wrapped in chicle isn’t known for sure. Some think it is possible the ancient Mayans did this to make the copal catch on fire faster.

It is also possible that ancient Mayans burned chicle as incense in its own right. This possibility exists because the infamous bishop Diego de Landa said it is so.

In terms of the deeper meaning of chicle to the ancient Mayans, an idea exists that they thought it was sacred, though they would also use it in a non-sacred way. They may have also thought the same way about rubber and copal.

Beginning of an Industry
Chicle later became part of a major chewing gum industry. It started when a man named Thomas Adams Sr. received some chicle from General Santa Anna (yes, the Santa Anna.) Santa Anna wanted Adams to find a way to make rubber with the chicle, but it didn't work. Instead, Adams marketed chicle as candy, the first modern chewing gum. Eventually chicle based gum became very popular and other companies got in on making it, including Wrigley Jr.

Chicle in Modern Times
Chicle-based chewing gum reached its height in the 1940s. However, over-production of chicle was destroying the sapodilla trees, which need 3 to 8 years of rest after being harvested. In response to this, a petroleum product "gum base" was created -- and it is this kind of gum that people are mostly chewing today. Due to the creation of the gum base, around the time of the 1950s, the chicle enterprise began to die.

Today, chicle is still a commodity in Mesoamerica. It is extracted via groups of "chicleros". In order to harvest chicle, they must camp out –during the rainy season -- in search of wild sapodilla trees, as there are no plantations of sapodilla today. When a chiclero finds a tree, he climbs it using rope and metal spurs, cuts slashes into it and uses bags lined with rubber to collect the resin that runs out of the cuts. Once the chicleros collect the resin, they take their filled bags back to their current campsite, and boil it down. After this, they then cut it into pieces.

Chicle gum can still be found today outside of Mesoamerica, though like tofu it has obtained "upscale" associations. One example is Chicza, which is made with sustainably produced chicle, and is sold as a fair trade item.


University of Arizona: Chicle; The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley; Jennifer P. Mathews; 2009

McMaster School for Advancing Humanity: Chicle, Chicleros and Community

Chicza: Deep Roots, How Chicza is Made

University of California at Santa Barbara: Mesoamerican Research Center: Chicle

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jade -- A Precious Stone of the Maya

A jade ornament dating from the 600s to 700s AD. The design is 
meant to look like a ruler's head with a headdress. From The Metropolitan 
Museum of Art.

Jade is something of an umbrella term: its used as a name for two stones, nephrite and jadeite. Rarer than nephrite -- which has yet to be found in Mesoamerica -- jadeite is the type of jade that the Maya culture group made part of its life. While they also made use of a host of green-colored stones (like zoisite, serpentine, jasper, and amazonite), jade was the one the ancient Maya liked the most. 

Name Origin
The word jade comes from a phrase used by the Conquistadors. When talking to the Aztecs about green-colored stones, the Aztecs said these stones were supposed to heal liver, kidney, and spleen problems. So the Conquistadors started to call green-colored stones "piedra de ijada," which you might see spelled other ways such as "piedra de yjada." Translations for this phrase include "side/flank stone" or "loin stone."

Scientific Facts
This carving is of a god called Ux Yop H'un.
It's from the 600s AD to 700s AD.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The formula for jade's chemical makeup is NaAlSi2O6. This means that it is made up of certain molecules of these elements: oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and sodium. Changes to this formula create different colors, such as black, light purple, white, blue and, of course, green. (Green is the most common color. It comes about when chromium is added into the mix.) 

This pendant comes from the 500s AD to
 800s AD. From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 Jade can be shaped so that it has a sharp edge, which can stay sharp pretty well. An important thing to note though, is that it is not common to find jade that's just jade. It's more common to find it combined with other minerals. This changes jade's features somewhat, such as how hard it is. (There is a scale called the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. This scale tests how hard minerals are when compared to each other. Diamond gets a 10. Jade's range of hardness goes from around 6.5 to 7.)

How They Worked It
From what archaeologists can tell, a multitude of ways to shape and/or set designs into stones were known to the ancient Maya. Examples of these ways include -- but are not limited to -- percussion (breaking jade to get the size you want,) polishing, reaming (making drilled holes' insides less rough,) sawing, and pecking (another style of breaking jade that left scars.) Another example of the many stone working methods the Maya had was drilling, done with both tubular drills, which drilled out a piece of stone, and solid drills, which drilled out a cone-shaped hole.
This jade object dates from the
200s AD to the 500s AD. It is a form of
the Principal Bird Deity. There is some
cinnabar still attached to it.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some of the ways the ancient Maya shaped jade involved an abrasive substance/grit, the fineness of the grains depending on what was being done to the jade. (A few kinds of grit they may have used include powdered jade and powdered quartzite.) An example where grit may have been used was sawing -- one type of sawing may have involved a string or cord that actually had grit stuck to it. (A variant on this says they also used water along with the string/cord and grit.)

As for tools, of which archaeologists haven't found a that many, the ancient Maya used stone and may have also used materials that can rot away over time, like the string used in the possible sawing method. One tool they may have had that was made of stone was the polishing rock -- archaeologists have found rocks that have dips in them from where the Maya may have rubbed jade to make it shiny. (It's possible the Maya also had other kinds of things they used to make jade shiny, like bamboo.) They may not have used rocks alone, but used grit and polishing rocks together.
Titled "Duck Pendant," this piece of jade was made
anywhere from 250 AD to 950 AD. The country it comes
from is either Mexico or Guatemala. From LACMA.

A popular way to add to the details of a jade object was to glue on red powder, made by crushing either hematite or cinnabar.  If a piece of jade had more than one color, there was a practice of trying to use the colors as part of the design of the object being made.

Where It Came From
The jade that the Maya civilization used came from the only source of jade in all of Mesoamerica -- so far as anyone's found. The source is in the Maya area -- specifically, in eastern Guatemala, in the Motagua River Valley. 

Things They Made
This is a par of earflares (without anything to go
through the holes) from the 200s AD to 500s AD.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The ancient Maya made different items with jade. Examples items that the Maya made include pendants, beads  -- made with less high quality jade --, inlays for teeth, and funeral masks made of pieces of jade fitted together. They also made a type of earring called an earflare, which looks like a spool but with a hole in the middle. (An earflare was set into a piercing in an earlobe, and something would be set into the earflare's hole to keep it in place.)

Another jade pendant, this time from the
600s AD to 700s AD. The carved image is a ruler sitting.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The biggest jade object that archaeologists know of weighs about 9.7 pounds and was found in 1968. It came from a royal grave in Belize's site of Altun Ha, from a building archaeologists call the Temple of the Masonry Altars. This piece of jade had been carved so that it looked like the head of the ancient Maya sun god, K'inich Ajaw/Kinich Ahau.

Cultural Meaning
For most of their history, the ancient Maya liked jade that was bright green above all. What did it mean to have jade? For one thing, it's possible the ancient Maya saw jade as the most impressive thing you could be seen wearing. (And it wasn't just an elite item, as archaeologists have found jade in both commoner and elite graves.)

Jade also meant religion in the ancient Maya civilization. There was a practice of putting a jade bead in a dead person's mouth. They also thought it was an object worthy of being used as a religious offering.

When the Maya thought of jade, they couldn't help but think of water, wind, the smell of flowers, and mist. It also looks like they were reminded of the soul somehow in connection to breath. (You may see this breath and soul connection called "breath soul.") They thought of all these things because they saw jade as the stone version of these them. The Maya also thought of other things: that jade was a symbol of divine rulership as well as corn.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Pair of Earflare Frontals

Mayan Ideas of Personal Beauty

From what archaeologists have put together so far, some Mayan ideas of beauty were similar to ours. However, they have also found that other Mayan ideas of beauty were far removed from what we think of as attractive. (Keep in mind though that a lot of what archaeologists look at comes from a certain part of the ancient Mayan world, and what they think they know might change.)

Let's start with the shape of the head. Mayans thought a long head was beautiful. Parents would strap a pair of boards to the front and back of their babies' heads -- while they were still soft and therefore could be shaped. The babies' heads would be re-shaped to have long, sloping foreheads.

As for the hair: long hair was common for both men and women. Women wore their hair one way when they were unmarried and wore it another way when they became married.

The Maya sense of beauty also included crossed eyes. Crossed eyes were thought to be beautiful for women.

Noses were also an important feature when it came to Mayan ideas of good looks. A pronounced (big) nose was considered to be a beautiful nose. A practice existed in which a clay extension would be attached to the nose in order to make it appear larger.

Moving on to the teeth -- Mayans thought teeth were pretty when sharpened to points, which they did by filing them. Another tooth enhancement involved drilling a hole in the center of the front of various teeth, where a piece of jade would be inserted.

Another common practice for both men and women was the act of getting tattooed -- after becoming married.

As for piercings, in one way the Maya had one idea that is the same as what we see as pretty today: ear piercings. However, the ancient Maya seem to have thought that lip piercings and septum (the part of the nose that divides the nostrils) piercings were also pretty -- instead of seeing it as more unusual as we might.


The Ancient Maya; Jackie Maloy; 2010

The Archeology Course Book; Jim Grant, Sam Gorin, Neil Fleming; 2008

Clark College: Women in Ancient Mesoamerica

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mayan Social Order

Both anthropologists and archaeologists are still reconstructing the ancient Mayan culture, including the social order. Currently, different theories (also called models) exist as to what things were like. One thing that they know is that ancient Mayan culture --including its social order -- changed by region, and also changed over time.

One theory about how the ancient Mayan society was generally structured goes like this: in the ancient Mayan world, people lived in city-states, where one city controlled a region. Kings were at the top of society, and under them were the nobles, the scribes and the priests. Underneath the nobles, scribes and priests were the merchants as well as artists. The next level down on the social pyramid included the commoners (such as farmers) and the slaves. This last level was possibly the largest, and worked for the upper levels of the social pyramid. This system was thought to have begun around 300 BC, and grew more elaborate by the Classic Period (around 200 AD to 900 AD).

There is an argument that says the social pyramid was not rigid. In this version of the theory, farmers had some control over things because they controlled food production. At the site of Ceren, archaeologists found that people seemed to have extra parts for things, and may have actually had home businesses selling items.

"The Ancient Maya" sixth edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

Illinois State University: Archaeology, Political Economy and the Maya Commoner