Around 2500 B.C. the Maya started cultivating corn (maize) and abandoned a nomadic way of life to settle in villages surrounded by cornfields. With the domestication of corn and the harnessing of rainwater for irrigation, all the elements were in place to support a growing Maya population. Maya farmers terraced the slopes of the volcanic mountains, cut back the heavy forests, constructed raised fields in the swampy lowlands, and conserved water in reservoirs in the Yucatán Peninsula. Irrigation canals supplied water that was carried into the fields in clay vessels. The Maya fertilized the fields with sediment and aquatic plants collected from the canals. This created a self-sustaining ecosystem.
Maya farmers cleared the jungles using a slash and burn method and grew their major crops during the rainy season from May to October. In the southern lowlands and on highland slopes along the edge of the Pacific ocean, milpas, or cornfields, were farmed for a few years, then left fallow for 4 to 7 years; in the northern lowlands of the Yucatán peninsula, where soil is thin, fields were abandoned for 15 to 20 years. Contemporary Maya continue to farm their land as their ancestors have done for centuries past.
So central a role did corn play in the Maya economy that it was considered sacred and treated like a deity. The Maize God is a principal deity in Maya religion. Each stage in the farming cycle was preceded by religious ritual. Corn continues to be the cornerstone of Maya culture. It provides sustenance and brings spiritual significance to daily life.
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