Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In With The Old – Mayan Agriculture

Photo by Hannes Grobe
I love history learning about how things were invented, dynasties built and destroyed, how we’ve changed since the dawn of time. And now with two young kids in tow, my days are full of questions about the what, how, and why of things. As I’m a natural-born researcher, I love getting into the nitty-gritty with the kids as we go on fact-finding missions. This week was no different.

When we sat down to dinner last night, one of my cherubs asked about corn and how it is made. Of course, I know the basics, but this discussion about corn extended into the history of agriculture. Somehow we travelled from Australian suburbia into the land of the Mayans. And this is what we discovered:

One of the biggest challenges the Mayans faced was lack of land, poor soil conditions, and not enough water. As their population steadily increased, so did their need to develop sustainable farming methods.

Initially, the Mayans used a technique called milpa, a slash and burn practice that yields100% productivity in the first year but reduces to 60% in the second year and slightly less in subsequent years. In the spring, before the summer rain, the Mayans would cut down and burn all of the foliage in the area they’d selected to grow crops, then they would use sticks to poke holes in the soil and plant three or four seeds at a time. Maize, beans, avocados, and pumpkins were popular, as well as cacao, the basis for Mayan chocolate. (And who wouldn’t want that?) Their footprint on the land was very light. The Mayans had a rule of only using only 5% of their land for agriculture and allowing the rest to replenish. Crop rotations were a given.

As time wore on, the Mayans discovered the sediment from the bottom of swamps were an excellent source for fertilising the adjacent land. They dug irrigation trenches and created a way of watering their crops they could use year round, rather than rely solely on annual rainfall.

Uxmal - Photo by HJPD
As crop productivity grew, so did the population, and their newfound farming techniques meant they could feed those living close to the swamps easily.

They needed to find another way to supply others throughout the empire so they developed another new system. The Mirador Basin in Guatemala is a perfect example of how a small, swamp-side village grew into one of the largest Mayan cities. With more than 200 pyramids (two times more than in all of Egypt), the Mirador Basin took nearly 15 million man-days of labour to construct.

Around 200 A.D., a drought hit the land. As the crops died, many Mayans perished. They fled the cities for the green forests to forage for food, recreating the lifestyle of their ancestors. Some survived and the rains arrived, but this experience taught the Mayans a valuable lesson. The needed to design new ways to ensure their people wouldn’t suffer a similar fate again.

They designed and built reservoirs in the hills above cities and ensured the irrigation channels sloped down to the population and crops below. They also built new cities such as Tikal, Copan, and Palenque closer to their water supplies. The drainage, irrigation, and reservoir systems designed by the Mayans changed the landscape forever. Instead of a footprint that washed away in the rain, the Mayan’s new agricultural methods were literally set in stone.

When the population continued to increase the civilization buckled under the pressure to feed so many mouths. Instead of the initial 5% rule for crops, they deforested more than 80% of the land, affecting the climate they lived in. The average temperature increased by 10 degrees Fahrenheit and water evaporated much faster, causing yet another water shortage – this time a man-made problem. Scientists have since discovered this was the worst drought to hit the region in 7,000 years. Yeah, that bad.

Once again, those living in cities deserted them and moved to more verdant regions. This put a larger strain on those areas and the entire civilization collapsed like a house of cards. Some Mayans relocated to cities such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal, but many perished in the forest en route. The drought eventually ended in the 9th century but the damage to the Mayan civilization had been done. Those who did survive returned to the ways of their ancestors yet again and for 700 years they constructed towns in jungles that served them well by hiding themselves when the Spanish arrived in 1517.

Cacao - Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture
Today, we use many of the Mayan’s farming methods. Terraced farms, reservoirs, forest gardens and managed fallows are popular ways of cultivating crops around the world, although today’s farmers have adapted most to suit modern-day needs.

So as corn juice flies across the dinner table whilst my kids crunch on tasty corn, they can thank the Mayans for finding ingenious ways to ensure this species of food didn’t disappear. Tonight I’m cooking lentils for dinner. I wonder if we’ll take that historical journey after dessert. What’s on your plate tonight?


  1. What a fascinating history, Alli! I love the fact that we still use some of these ancient practices today. The Mayans got their own back for all those book burnings by the colonials. :) What did you kids think of their history lesson?

  2. I agree! It's interesting how the history of corn can tell us so much about the Mayans themselves. Fascinating!

  3. I've never seen the inside of a Cacao fruit. Love the picture