Author's note: This post was last updated on 11/16/17.
|Image from the Library of Congress's Flickr page, slightly modified.|
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.
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 (BAH-ho) and the aguada (ah-GWA-dah) 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.)
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 (reh-ho-YAH-dah) 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
Google Books: "The Ancient Maya" sixth edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006
Google Books: "The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives"; Heather McKillop; 2004
The Pennsylvania State University: Electronic Theses and Dissertations for Graduate School: "Chapter 2: Background and Framework"
The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Shifting Agriculture