Maya Farming & Maize (Corn)
Maize has been and still is the most important food crop in the Maya area. Maize is extremely important to the Maya, as according to their creation myth, the gods created the first humans from maize dough and their bodies were believed to be made from maize.
Dr Diane being directed by her Maya friend, Ixnal, in how to shape a tortilla.
Both the ancient and modern Maya basic subsistence was maize, beans and squash, maize being the most important.
One of the most important gods in Maya religion was the maize god. The oldest depiction of the maize god is found at San Bartolo, where Dr Diane carried out her research!
The Maya used maize, which we call corn, to make tortillas (flat pancakes similar to how we use bread), tamales (vegetables and meat wrapped up in a corn husk and like a pasty), and a nutritious corn drink which is very nourishing.
Maize is the most common crop grown in the Maya area. Milpa is the term for corn-based agriculture, the products of which are consumed by the family.
Watch a Maya farmer planting maize.
The Maya also ate turkey, deer, rabbit, tomatoes, avocado and other fruits. They would trade with other people along the coast for fish and seafood.
Farming is as important to the Maya today as it was in ancient times and methods are similar in many areas. It is critical to understand that they did not use metal tools or use beasts of burden (such as cows or horses) – all work was done by hand.
The methods used were driven by the physical geography:
- In the rainforests they used shifting agriculture (slash and burn), where tree foliage (the trunks remained) and plants were cut down, not only to clear the space but to provide nutrients from the ash. However, this only provided fertile land for a limited number of years, so further areas were cut down and the planting shifted, with the original area left to grow back. A huge undertaking, and not enough on its own to feed the huge populations in the Classic period.
- Raised beds were made by digging up mud from swampy areas (‘bajos’) and placing it on woven reeds. Canals ran between the beds where aquatic life thrived, producing fertiliser. Although labour-intensive, it was a productive method and could produce up to three crops a year.
- Mountainous areas needed terrace farming – small fields cut into the side of the hill with a wall holding the growing land level and preventing erosion.
Elizabeth, a Maya woman, demonstrates how to make corn tortillas and explains what makes Guatemalan tortillas so good! A great introductory video.
It is perfect to have a go at making tortillas in the classroom, but you will need the correct type of maize flour – try here. It takes a fair few goes to get it right, but the children will have a great time making them:
- In a bowl, mix a little water with some of the flour, keep going until it just starts to turn into a very stiff paste. Use a finger to swill it round to mix, it won’t require kneading. You can always add more flour if it turns runny.
- With slightly wet hands, roll a golf ball amount and then flatten slightly.
- Start to work it with the fingers stretched out. Press slightly and turn it a small amount, alternating hands.
- Put onto a hot plate (or saucepan with no oil) and turn once when the edges look like they are cooking. Depending on the heat of the pan (hotter the better), it should take less than a minute per side. When starting to brown that side is done.
- Serve with guacamole, refried beans or salsa – or just eat them as they are.
Resources to Download
These resources were written by teachers on a CPD trip with Dr Diane to the Maya area. You can download these below.
Please note – you will need to use your personal, rather than your school’s email address to download these files, as most schools disable the ability to receive items from outside their domain.
You can access the complete scheme of work for a small fee, in the form of a donation to the charity Chok Education, which supports the education of Maya children.
Maya Archaeology of Mesoamerica Resource: The Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research (FLAAR) has books concerning plants utilized by the Maya, flowers, sacred food, drink and much more.