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Mayan Society  

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     When the early Mayans stopped gathering and hunting as a way of supporting their families, they began to plant crops such as corn (called maize or maiz), bananas, beans, and ayote (a type of squash).  In the lowlands, the trick was to keep the jungle back away from the crops.  In the highlands, where there was very limited flat ground, mountainsides had to be cleared.  Perhaps this was less of a problem than the jungle.


However, on the mountainsides there were many rocks that had to be removed. There was also the problem of working all day bent over or crouched down, with one leg stretched out while being supported by the other.  Every couple of years or so, the early farmers moved to a new field, allowing the other to recuperate for a few years.


     The early Pre-classic Mayan farmers lived in compounds or very small villages comprised of their extended family members.  No doubt their houses were built just as the people of the most meager means, such as squatters still build the houses today.  They are one room houses made of vertical poles stuck into the ground, and then other wooden poles are placed horizontally against the vertical ones and each joint is tied together.  The open areas between the  vertical and horizontal poles are filled with mud (or clay if it can be found), and allowed to dry.  A door can be fashioned in the same manner.  The roof is also made from strategically placed poles.  This is then covered with long bundles of grass tied together.  Generally outside the house there was at least a simple fireplace for cooking.  Sometimes, there was also a rounded oven, fashioned

from clay.  This oven isn’t too bad.  I have eaten “things” cooked in this type of oven.

     The maize was ground on a concave or bowl shaped rock, using a cylindrical rock in hand for the grinding.  The maize is soaked in water for a time before the grinding process.  From this wet ground “masa”, the women could make tortillas, a type of drink, tamales, or place semi-cooked vegetables and  meat between two tortillas, sealing the edges with the vegetables inside, and cooking them.  This type of preparation today is called “empanadas”.  When the maize or corn is fresh and tender, the “masa” can be mixed with something sweet (like sugar cane juice) and cooked. This is called a “tamalito”.   

     The women did the food preparation, did weaving, made clothing, took the dirty clothes to the river, laid them on a large flat rock and rubbed them with another rock, rinsing them frequently in the river.  Once again, this is still done daily through Mexico and all of Central America.  In their spare time the women took care of the children.

          The work of the men entailed hunting, fishing, planting, harvesting, and keeping the house in good repair.  The house was used to escape from the hot sun in the summer and for sleep during the night hours.  In the poorer areas, none of this has changed.  I have visited in this type of home, both in the day and at night when the light provided came from a single “home made” candle.  The floor was dirt (swept daily by a broom made from small leafed branches tied to a pole).  During special occasions or meetings, pine needles are spread all over the floor for a nice fragrance.  Today’s “kitchen” is usually located under the rear eve of the house.

     Later in the Pre-classic period, government began on a small scale.  Some areas,  where the villages had grown quite large, elected the system of village “chiefs”.  Smaller villages had only a village “elder”.

        The late Pre-classic era saw the first Kings.  From this point one began to see the rise of the great Mayan Kingdoms.  These had not only local influence, but extended both law and protection to widespread geographical areas.  This type of government  dominated Mayan society for another thousand years.  “Within each Maya kingdom, society was organized hierarchically, including kings, nobles, teachers, scribes, warriors, architects, administrators, craftsmen, merchants, laborers, and farmers.”   - CMCC Mystery of the Maya, April, 1997.   A thousand years later,  “whatever the reasons, the Maya decided to return to a simpler form of life as farmers of maize – living in rural villages much as they do today.”  -Ibid.   

      “The northern Mayans also moved into a new phase as they came under the influence of their Toltec neighbors and other groups that settled in the Yucatán.  This era continued until the arrival of the Spanish in 1541, which ushered in a dark period that witnessed Mayan books burned and attempts made to obliterate the Mayan religion.”  -Ibid    This era is comparable to the “dark ages” of Europe, and was spawned by the same mindset of religious intolerance.

     Among the modern Mayas, we find that many small villages are located one-half to one hour distance from larger cities.  Here, the local peoples come to sell their woven textiles which include blankets, table runners, belts, and some shirts, as well as crafts which vary from figurines to imitations of Mayan statues.  Woven baskets, wooden products such as figures, bowls with tops are also popular.  The food market place in cities such as Guatemala City and Antigua are filled with beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables, attended by mothers dressed in their native clothing of bright colors and designs indicative of which village they are from.  Basically everyone from that village wears the same color and design of clothing.  This is even true of the men.  For example, all of the men from Sololá, near Lake Atitlán, wear a bright red pants with vertical white stripes.  This may seem strange to the reader.  However, this community pride may well be what keeps the Mayans from disappearing into oblivion under the pressures of the modern world.  Many of these “native” villages still have a shaman-priest who keeps a close eye on the Sacred Round Calendar so they can conduct the traditional Mayan rituals.


Two notes of interest must be stated here.  First, is the current threat to the Mayans in Guatemala’s Petén region.  Contraband loggers are a constant death threat to government guards placed there to oversee the “Protected Areas”.  The disappearing rainforest is exposing Mayan ruins to well-armed looters, which in many cases have their own helicopter  “gunships”.  In addition, the tremendous migration of settlers from the south is further destroying the forest by clearing the ground for corn fields.  In only four years, from 1988 to 1992, 1,130 acres were destroyed by new farmers alone.  The population is rising at an alarming rate.  It has increased “from 15,000 people in 1950 to more than 300,000 today”.  -  CMCC, Mystery of the Maya, April, 1997

     The second note of great interest to some of us is the Lacandón people of the Chiapas rain forest in Mexico.  This is a small isolated group which numbered no more than about 200 in the early 1980’s.  As late as the 1950’s they were still hunting with bow and arrows.  The CMCC report has divulged the fact that the Lacandón have never been Christianized.  As a theologian and an archaeologist this really pulls me in two different and difficult directions.  Since the 1950’s their “forest home has been opened up to travellers and tourists, and the Lacadón often travel outside the forest to sell their handicrafts.  There is great concern that the Lacadón way of life will not survive long into the next century”.  –Ibid      There are about 5,000 Lacandón living today in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.

     There is an estimated 5 to 6 million Mayas living today.  There are about 300,000 Yacatecs; 120,000 Tzotzils; and some 80,000 Tzeltals.  The Tzotzil and Tzeltals live in the highlands of Chiapas, while the Yucatecs live on the tropical Yucatán Peninsula.

        Other large groups include the Quiché and Cakchiquel of Guatemala, and the Kekchí of Belize.  All together, there are 31 Maya groups today, each with their own dialect of the Mayan family group.




     In the region of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán, the boy follows the girl to bring water.  They already know each other and have a mutual interest one for the other.  The tradition is that the boy follows the girl to get the water and offers to help her carry the jar.  She does not answer.  She allows him to get close to her.  When he takes her by the arm, she lets the jar of water spill on him, braking the jar.  When the girl arrives home without the jar and water, the parents know that she has given her consent to a boy, and they prepare to receive him, and his ambassador.  If the girl doesn’t drop the jar, her answer is “No!”

     The Quichés have a similar routine.  The boy follows the girl to market.  On the way home he finds an opportunity to talk to her alone.  If she is in agreement with the betrothal, she stops and remains silent.  He then takes the end of her shawl and wraps it around his right arm.  They then hold hands and thus seal the engagement.  

Polygamy is accepted by the Quiché if the man can financially support the wives.  He may have up to seven wives.  Two are in charge of the home in general; one in charge of the private rooms and one in charge of the kitchen.  One takes care of the domestic animals.  One visits the neighbors and towns, selling grains and fruits.  One takes the meals to the workers in the fields at noon, and one does the washing of clothes.

         The seventh wife accompanies the head of the household on his commercial travels.  This is considered his real wife (at least for the moment), because all this happens on a rotating basis, which occurs every four moons.  This practice is not very prevalent today, but only because of the poor economic conditions that exists.


Travel, one would think would have been very difficult in the old days.  However, there is a story of  an Inca Crown Prince from Peru who came to Quiché country to claim the Quiché Crown Princess to be his Queen.  After much music, festivities, and prayers, the couple knelt before the Mayan High Priest in the temple.  “The High Priest bound them with a multicolored marriage chain and offered traditional chants for their happiness.

          The Inca ordered a large coffer to be brought to him.  Inside was a vase of mother-of-pearl, embellished with emeralds and rubies.  He said: “King of Quiché, my Lord the Inca is most grateful to you for granting your daughter to a Prince of his Empire.  He sends this present to you to commemorate this day and this act.  Please be kind enough to accept it.”   The Quiché King replied, “Give our thanks to your Lord, but it is not possible for me, nor ought I, accept this gift.”

        Then the Inca took a necklace of the most precious jewels and offered them to the Quiché King.  This time the answer was:  “Please tell your Lord that there is nothing of material that can compensate for a Quiché Princess.  There are no jewels to compare with her.”   The Inca offered a skull-cap of gold, saying, “Then accept this, the most precious treasure we possess.  It is a golden skull-cap with all the symbols of our dynasty and our god.”  The Quiché King answered, “This I can accept for what it signifies and represents.  We shall keep it in the Temple of Tojil, and we shall tell our children that it is the greatest inheritance we can leave to them.” 

       A great celebration took place for the bride and groom because the two great Empires were now joined by blood.  The next day, the Quiché Princess left Kumarkaaj for the long journey to South America.  The Court, the nobles, the priests, everyone that could, accompanied her and her husband as far as Ziguán Tinimit.

       The Princess never returned to Kumarkaaj, but the Golden Skull-cap can be seen today in the Museum of Chichicastenango, and it still commemorates the wedding of an Inca Prince and a Quiché Princess.”  Tales From Chichicastenango, Raul Perez Maldonado.  Union Tip Press, Guatemala, 1975