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The daily life of the ancient Maya Research Paper


The Maya are people otherwise known as Mesoamericans. Long time ago, the people of Maya inhabited large cities and urban centers in the Central America; in fact, it is recorded that at a certain point in time, the Maya people had approximately a thousand cities. They used to live in rainforests and mountains; the region that are currently known as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya people also inhabited northern part of Belize and some regions of southern Mexico.

The Maya of today still inhabit the same regions; however, the large cities no longer exist. From 300 A.D to 800 A.D, the people of Maya considered as a great nation and constituted individuals who were both traders and farmers. Besides, they had a lot o building talents which they utilized in constructing beautiful and attractive temples and pyramids (Sharer & Traxler, 2006).

Individual (municipality) control was adopted in the Maya states. However, it is notable that the main link between the cities of Maya was not political but cultural. This gives a notion that they might have been largely communal in terms of interpersonal relationships. Later, the people of Maya began to leave the cities; but the reason for leaving is still a subject of research to date. It is reported that by the year 1900, Most of the Maya people had migrated to other places.

It is important to mention that the Maya people spoke varied language dialects and practiced a lot of both social and religious cultures (Sharer & Traxler, 2006). Today, the history of Maya remains a subject of interest; the artifacts preserved for this entire long serve as attractions for both academic scholars and tourists alike. This paper examines the lifestyle of the ancient Maya people taking into account their various social and economic activities.

The daily life of the ancient Maya

Agricultural activities

The daily life of the ancient Maya constituted a lot of activities that they performed almost religiously. The activities had religious, political, social and economic dimensions.

Agriculture was one of the very prominent activities that the Maya people engaged in. the ancient agricultural feature of the community still can be found in many available archaeological records; these records stretch from the old to the new world. The Maya agricultural practices included forms of irrigation canals, clearing of land for farming, building of check dams, constructing terraces and doing land reclamation on grounds raised as a result of volcanic activities.

The available literature indicates that the Maya people have been farmers for over 1,500 years now. They practiced a type of farming known as slash-and-burn; in this case, the farmers ripped of the back from forest trees in the rain forest; after the backs were dry, the Maya farmers burned them in order to clear the land on which they intended to use for various farming purposes.

After clearing land they planted seeds. From the available documentations, the Maya people cleared large forest in a bid to create more farming land; this was due to the fact that their growing population meant more demand for food. So the deforestation was an activity that increased proportionately with the increasing need to feed the growing number of Maya people (Zier, 1980).

Deforestation was done on large scales not only to create land for farming, but also to create more room for the construction of shelters. However, there was also need for certain trees which were used for various purposes. One of the important trees was the pine tree. Some of the trees were used as medicine to treat certain type of diseases while some were used as source firewood in their homes for heating and cooking (Abraham & Rue, 1988).

The ancient Maya people planted crops like corns, squash and chili papers. Moreover, the farmers also engaged in growing of plants like papayas, Cacao and pineapples (Powis, et al, 2002).

Maize was the most essential crop. They referred to it as the “sunbeam of the gods.” The cacao was used to make chocolate and frothy drinks. This has been discovered after archeologists have examined some spouted vessels which they found with some residue of cacao. Given the nature of the land topography, the Maya farmers had adaptive ways of ensuring their crops were safe from flooding waters during heavy rainy seasons; they cut deep steps into the hillside and then planted their crops on those steps.

This is agriculturally referred to as terrace farming. The evidences of ancient agriculture amongst the Maya people are found in the lowland tropic of Belize, Mexico, Chiapas and the Guatemalan Peten. The available information centres majorly on the Mayan agricultural activities in the lowland areas while ignoring similar activities on the highland areas (Abraham & Rue, 1988).

The Maya people never had elaborate technology and hence depended almost exclusively on manual labour. Food formed an important source of energy; food was the only form of energy extraction since all the working individuals depended on easting food to gain more energy for more or continuous work (Webster, 1985).

However, it is assumed that not all the energy in food substances were extracted and used. Most crops were sold in exchange of other commodities; others were eaten by animals while the rest returned into the soil due to destroyed plants and crops through floods or droughts (Webster, 1985). This clearly indicates that the ancient Maya people were almost exclusively agrarians.

However, the marine resources also formed parts of their food or diet. The analysis that has been done on the available artifacts suggests that the Maya people had depended substantially on marine resources. Nonetheless, artifacts have been interpreted differently by different people; some have argued that the Maya people depended more on marine animals while other interpretations posit that they might have dependent on animal got the inland (McKillop , 1984).

Apart from farming the Maya people were also hunters and gatherers; the hunted animals in the forests and collected fruits from various trees. Amongst they hunted animals were marine and some came from the inland forests. The Maya exploited the Pachychilus, a freshwater molluscan species.

The shells of the jute snails were seen as having aesthetic value by the ancient Maya people. Moreover, the jute snails were used to provide for supplementary nutrition to the available consumables (Healy, et al, 1990). From the gathered evidences of archaeological works, it seems the Maya people might have used different kind of animal species for various purposes including as a sources of food and nutritional supplements.

Trade and the economic activities

The ancient Maya people were also involved in trading activities which formed an important part of the ancient Maya lifestyle. Considering the ancient Maya lowland regions, a distinction between market economies and other forms of economic exchanges is challenging. Available evidences show that the Maya people also engaged in long distance trade; this is due remains of port facilities discovered the Gulf or Mexico.

The evidence of trade, especially long distance trade is further supported by archaeological and ethnographic confirmation for transportation facilities that included interconnected streets and the canals. Given several research findings, it has been shown that despite the fact there were market centres for trading activities it remains unclear as to what kind of people trade in the markets (Dahlin, 2007).

However, other research findings indicate that as the Maya villages enlarged in terms of population, farmers started trading the products they had made. As the trading activities became intense, network of roads started forming due to frequent travel to other villages to conduct business transactions. Soon the villages were interconnected; the centres used for trade turned into big city markets.

More findings indicate that the Maya people used to carry their luggage on their backs in things called backpacks; many of the business people made use of hanging straps that hung across their chest or forehead. This shows that the ancient Maya people never had horses and or mules to help carry their merchandise to market centres. The medium of exchange was beans from the cacao plant. Some of the other items included beans, weapons, tools and clothes (Dahlin, 2007).

Amongst the trade items was salt. The discoveries made on salt works of the Maya people in Punta Ycacos Lagoon within the south coast of Belize offers a new aspect to the understanding of the ancient Mayan economy (McKillop & Sabloff, 2005).

Research findings indicate that there was extensive production of salt outside the major urban centres; the productions are recorded to have been beyond the control of what is described as the dynastic royal Maya leadership in the cities. The regions where salt was produced were located near the sea; the sea provided the necessary raw materials for making of the salt.

The evidences of salt work in ancient Maya were found in the Yecacos Lagoon, which is described as “a large salt water lagoon in Payne Creek National Park.” The park is found in Balize. The research findings indicate the floors of the seas were marked by the salt artifacts which included the fragmentary remnants of bowls and jars that were used by the Maya people to boil water from the sea in order to produce salt cakes or salts grains (McKillop & Sabloff, 2005).

There was also discovered a large charcoal fireplace; alongside the charcoal fireplace was found what were believed to be salt pots. Amongst the trading items were colourful bird feathers and special stones, though most research findings have not adequately mentioned or discussed about the items. From compiled information on Maya people and their daily life, it can be deduced that they totally depended on agriculture since their lives resolved around food crops (McKillop & Sabloff, 2005).

Even though the Maya people were engaged in trade, the economy remained largely subsistent; this means that they largely produced for their own local consumptions.

Added to food crops, animals also were a significant source of food for the Maya people. However, however, some of the species of animals were used in the form of luxury commodities and food. In fact, access to the animal products was differently available to various members of the community; this took place in terms of social ranks and authority as recognized by the culture of the community.

Mining as an activity

Mining might have also been integral part activity for the Maya people. They involved themselves in cave mining. It is important to note that caves have always been bestowed with some sort of significance all over the world.

They have been used as important landmarks and their dark regions seem to have been preserves spaces for regious rituals and other religious activities. Recent discoveries have indicated some traces of extractive activities that took place within the caves made by the Maya people. The extractions led to the creation of artificial caves by the Maya people.

According presented evidences, the Maya people mined caves to extract pigments; different pigments were mined from different caves. It is indicated that examination done on regional grounds where the Maya people lived or inhabited have shown that extractive caves were mined and later were filled with top soil (Brady & Rissolo, 2006).

The Maya people had strong beliefs in the supernatural power of the caves, especially the natural caves. Otherwise they also used the artificial caves for religious purposes. According to archaeological studies that have been done, the Maya caves were established by use of proper plans; hence, the caves are considered as format architecture adopted by the ancient Maya people (Brady & Rissolo, 2006).

Research also indicates that the Maya people used the caves alongside other designated rock shelters to burry their dead one. According to research by an archeologist, artificial caves had domestic implications too. In Honduras and the southern lowlands, where the natural caves are rare, the houses of ancient Maya people frequently included large earthen pits otherwise referred to as chultun.

It has been posited that the chultuns might have been ignored by the early researchers but the Maya people considered them as their household caves in which they conducted their religious rituals. It is also shown that Maya farmers whose residences were far removed from major cities and town centers unearthed their own caves; the caves were meant to serve the communities from where the farmers came (Brady & Rissolo, 2006).

Clay mining has also been found to have been an activity engaged in by the ancient Maya people. The Maya mined clay and or white earth which they used for various purposes.

Some of the mined clay and white earth were used to make pigments, for instance, the Maya blue. In fact, it is argued that some of the artificial caves might have been formed due to the clay and white earth mining activities. For example, evidences indicate that some caves have elements of reddish yellow clay extraction. Apart from making of different pigments, clay was also used in making items of ceramics and other products (Brady & Rissolo, 2006).

Maya city lives

The daily lives of the Maya could not be complete without the cities. According to available research work, the Maya cities became significant centres for trading activities by the Maya people. Amongst the most prominent cities are listed as Chichen Itza, Palenque and Tikal.

It is approximated that at least 30,000 and utmost 60,000 Maya people lived in the ancient cities. Deducing from the available research findings, the inhabitants of every city had their own way of speaking the Maya language. This implies that the Maya people had different dialects. It is also reveals that inhabitant of each city had there own crafts and lifestyles.

The cities had hundreds and hundreds of buildings which included, but not limited to, pyramids, ballparks, palaces and temples. It is crucial to mention that as much as Maya people lived and traded in the cities, the palaces of kings and shelter for other significant people in the community were constructed in the cities. The buildings in the cities were beautifully decorated, especially those of the kings, governors and other significant individuals within the community (Brady & Rissolo, 2006).


The daily lifestyle of the ancient Maya people was full of colourful events. The remains of the Maya people’s activities have been of great interest to both anthropological scholars and tourists alike. According to archaeological findings, the daily lifestyle of the ancient Maya had political, social, economic and religious aspects. They mostly depended on agriculture where they grew crops such as beans, corns, beans and cacao amongst others (Zier, 1980).

The farming activities expanded to an extent that large tracks of forests were destroyed to create room for both farming and settlement by the increasing population (Abraham & Rue, 1988). They mainly practiced subsistent farming in which they mainly produced for family consumptions. Besides farming, the Maya people were also great hunters and gatherers. They hunted marine animals and those found in the inland rainforests. The animals provided supplementary nutrition.

Mining has also been found to have been one of the major significant activities amongst the ancient Maya. Archaeologists have discovered caves that were excavated by the Maya. The caves were used for religious rituals and some were utilized as burial places for the dead, especially those who had high social standings like the head of governments.

The caves have also been proven, through archaeological examination, to have existed due to mining of other things such as reddish yellow clay and white earth amongst other important items. They used the clay in making different pigments and also manufacturing ceramic products like eating bowls and cooking pots. According to available documentations, the Maya people also family caves where they performed family related rituals.

The ancient Maya also engaged in trade and other economic activities. Archeological evidences indicate that a discovery was made of interlinking paths that linked the villages together. This suggests the Maya used the path to access market centers situated in different villages and cities.

Even though the Maya people were known for subsistent productions, they traded their surplus products in order to get what they never had and seriously needed (Dahlin, 2007). The trade led to expansion and growth of the cities. It is argued that the Maya people never had a universal medium of exchange during trading processes.

They tended to have relied heavily on barter system of trade where they exchanged what they had but could dispose some to others who needed them for what they did not have and were being offered by others. However, it is posited that they might have used the cacao as a medium of exchange though there is no string evidence to affirm that cacao was the widely accepted medium of exchange. The lifestyle of the ancient Maya still remains of great interest to archeologists, anthropologists and tourists.

Reference List

Abraham, E. & Rue, D. (1988). The Causes and Consequences of Deforestation among the Prehistoric Maya. New York: Springer.

Brady, J. & Rissolo, D. (2006). A Reappraisal of Ancient Maya Cave Mining. Mexico: University of New Mexico.

Dahlin, B. (2007). In Search of an Ancient Maya Market. New York: Society for American Archaeology.

Healy, P. et al. (1990). Ancient and Modern Maya Exploitation of the Jute Snail (Pachychilus). New York: Society for American Archaeology.

McKillop, H. (1984). Prehistoric Maya Reliance on Marine Resources: Analysis of a Midden from Moho Cay, Belize. Boston: Boston University.

McKillop, H. & Sabloff, J. (2005). Finds in Belize Document Late Classic Maya Salt Making and Canoe Transport. America: National Academy of Sciences.

Powis, T. et al. (2002). Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya. New York: Society for American Archaeology.

Sharer, R. & Traxler, L. (2006). The Ancient Maya Sixth Edition. California, Stafford.

Webster, D. (1985). Surplus, Labour, and Stress in Late Classic Maya Society. Mexico: University of New Mexico.

Zier, C. (1980). A Classic-Period Maya Agricultural Field in Western El Salvador. Boston: Bostob University.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'The daily life of the ancient Maya'. 15 February.

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