Ancient Mayan farming
The ancient Maya had diverse and sophisticated methods of food production. It was formerly believed that shifting cultivation (swidden) agriculture provided most of their food but it is now thought that permanent raised fields, terracing, forest gardens, managed fallows, and wild harvesting were also crucial to supporting the large populations of the Classic period in some areas. Indeed, evidence of these different agricultural systems persist today: raised fields connected by canals can be seen on aerial photographs, contemporary rainforest species composition has significantly higher abundance of species of economic value to ancient Maya, and pollen records in lake sediments suggest that corn, manioc, sunflower seeds, cotton, and other crops have been cultivated in association with deforestation in Mesoamerica since at least 2500 BC.
The Mayans were skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.
While the Maya diet varies, depending on the local geography, maize remains the primary staple now as it was centuries ago. Made nutritionally complete with the addition of lime, the kernels are boiled, ground with a metate and mano, then formed by hand into flat tortillas that are cooked on a griddle that is traditionally supported on three stones. Chile peppers, beans and squash are still grown in the family farm plot (milpa) right along with the maize, maximizing each crop's requirements for nutrients, sun, shade and growing surface. Agriculture was based on slash and burn farming which required that a field be left fallow for 5 to 15 years after only 2 to 5 years of cultivation. But there is evidence that fixed raised fields and terraced hillsides were also used in appropriate areas.
The Maya farmer cultivated corn, beans, cacao, chile, maguey, bananas, and cotton, besides giving attention to bees, from which he obtained both honey and wax. Various fermented drinks were prepared from corn, maguey, and honey. They were much given to drunkenness, which was so common as hardly to be considered disgraceful.
Chocolate was the favorite drink of the upper classes. Cacao beans, as well as pieces of copper, were a common medium of exchange. Very little meat was eaten, except at ceremonial feasts, although the Maya were expert hunters and fishers. A small "barkless" dog was also eaten.
Contemporary Maya peoples still practice many of these traditional forms of agriculture, although they are dynamic systems and change with changing population pressures, cultures, economic systems, climate change, and the availability of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
In the News ...
Ancient People of Teotihuacan Drank Milky Alcohol, Pottery Suggests Live Science - September 15, 2014
Ancient pottery confirms people made and drank a milky alcoholic concoction at one of the largest cities in prehistory, Teotihuacan in Mexico, researchers say. This liquor may have helped provide the people of this ancient metropolis with essential nutrients during frequent shortfalls in staple foods, scientists added. The ancient city of Teotihuacan, whose name means "the city of the gods" in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, was the largest city in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. At its zenith, Teotihuacan encompassed about 8 square miles (20 square kilometers) and supported an estimated population of 100, 000 people, who raised giant monuments such as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.
Discovery - November 29, 2012
Planning a last supper party on December 21? To celebrate the Mayan way, you might need several clay balls. That's one way the Maya cooked their food, according to U.S. archaeologists who have unearthed dozens of rounded clay pieces from a site in Mexico. About 1-2 inches in diameter and more than 1, 000 years old, the clay balls contained microscopic pieces of maize, beans, squash and other root crops.
Ancient Farm Discovery Yields Clues to Maya Diet National Geographic - August 20, 2007
The ancient Maya cultivated crops of manioc - also known as cassava - some 1, 400 years ago, according to archaeologists studying a Maya farm preserved in volcanic ash. The discovery may help solve the long-standing mystery of how the ancient culture produced enough energy-rich, starchy food to support its large city-centered populations.