Why were many animals sacred?

What types of foods didn't the Mayas eat?




Why was nature so important to the Mayas?

The Mayan ancestors didn't have radios or cars. There weren't convenience stores or supermarkets to buy food at, or other stores where they sold rubber boots or t-shirts. Nor were there hardware stores where they could buy cement blocks or metal to build houses. Everything they needed they got from nature:firewood to cook, fruit to eat, cotton to weave, and leather to make sandals.
That's why all of nature was so important to the Mayas. And we can see this in almost every aspect of Mayan culture. The high pyramids in which they built their temples looked like mountains and in their carvings we can see plants and animals. Also, they believed that an enormous Ceiba or Silk Cotton tree was at the centre of the universe, and some of the gods got their names from animals! So you see, nature was all around them...

What kinds of animals did the Mayas know?

Howler Monkey
The Mayas kept dogs as pets that would help them to hunt. Also, they raised a kind of dog that couldn't bark and had no hair that they just used as food. They had ducks, but no hens. In the jungle, they hunted jaguars, agoutis (small nocturnal animals), and deer. They captured birds with colourful plumages, like parrots and quetzals, and they used the feathers to decorate their clothes and headdresses.

Many of the animals that the Mayas knew don't live in the Copán valley anymore, because unfortunately there isn't enough forest left for them to live in.

Why were many animals sacred?

Animals were very important to the Mayas. They hunted animals to eat, but they never killed an animal without a good reason. They believed that every god was represented by an animal on earth. They named these sacred animals ‘nahuals. One very important nahual is the jaguar, which represented the sun god.
Rabbit writing on a scroll
Actually, every animal has a special significance. The frog is a symbol of fertility. The snake is related to the skies. And the two-headed snake, found in a lot of Mayan art, is a symbol of power. The rabbit was the master of writers, and the monkey was the master of mathematicians.

How did they plant crops? Did they burn their land?

Corn god sowingSowing corn seeds
Every family had a yard where they would grow some crops, but there were also communal fields where everyone helped to plant and harvest. The Mayas from back then cultivated the land both similarly and differently from how it is done today. They didn't have any kind of metal, so they didn't have machetes, or plows, or draught animals to help them cultivate. Many more years would pass before the Spanish brought cows, oxen, and horses, so the Mayas just had tools made of stone and wood to work with. They used measuring sticks and hoes very similar to what many people still use in agriculture today.
Yes, the Mayas did burn their land because it's the easiest way to clean it, or prepare it for the next crop. Also, the ashes from the trees and plants is good fertilizer for the next crop. The problem is that burning can only be done every 2 or 3 years because it also destroys the nutrients in the earth and doesn't leave any for the new crops. After this burning, the land isn't good for a while. So every 2 or 3 years, the Mayas also had to cut down another part of their forest to create new fields. We now know that burning the land pollutes the air and can cause uncontrollable fires. So we need to avoid burning the land!
Slash & burn in Copán today

Why are the Mayas called “"people of the corn"?

The ‘Popol Vuh is an ancient text so important to the Mayas that it's like the Bible for many people today. According to the Popol Vuh, humans were created this way:
In the beginning, there wasn't anything, only darkness. The Maya gods decided to create the earth. First they created land and water. But there was no life, no movement, and no creatures to give thanks to them. So they created animals. But when they asked the animals to open their mouths to talk to their creators, the animals only squealed and shouted.

The heroe twins from the Popol Vuh
Man made of mud

So the gods decided to create humans. The first human, a man, they created from clay. But the poor guy didn't have sight, or a voice, and he soon began to fall apart. So they tried again and made a man from wood. This man could talk, but he didn't have a soul or reason and he would forget to thank his creators. The gods thought about it one more time and decided to create a man from white and yellow cornmeal. This time, their creation was a success. The man walked, talked, and really thanked the gods for making him. And so this is why the Mayas are still known as "people of the corn".

What was their most important food?

Corn images
Corn was the most important food for the Mayas. Same for Hondurans today! They made ‘tamales, a type of hot drink called atole , and for sure they loved corn on the cob. In Copán, they didn't have tortillas. Do you know why we know this? Because in the valley we've never found comales, the flat pans Hondurans make tortillas on today.
The Mayas thought corn was a sacred plant, not only because it was their everyday food, but also because they believed that they themselves had been created from yellow and white corn, as the Popol Vuh says. They also related the corn lifecycle with their lifecycle: the plant is born in the seed, grows and gives fruit, until it dies, and then the cycle starts again with another plant that is born from the seed of the dead plant. Corn was so important that even the gods helped to plant and harvest it.

In addition to corn, the Mayas grew peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins or squash, yams, cassava, and beans. They also ate avocados, cilantro, a medicinal plant called ‘apazote and lots of fruits that they found in the forest, like mangos, papayas, and guavas. Mayans didnt eat much meat, but once in a while they hunted deer to eat. At their houses, they kept ducks, and a species of dog that had no hair and didn’'t bark. These dogs weren't pets, they were raised for eating! Also the Mayans ate fish from the river, cassava root, and honey from bees.

Traditional food

What types of foods didn't the Mayas eat?

There a lot of foods that are common now in Copán that didn't exist at the time of the ancient Maya. For example, coffee is now one of the most important crops in the region and a lot of people drink it, but it was introduced many years after the Mayas left Copán. The Mayas also didn't know rice or wheat. There weren't any cows, so the Mayas from back then didn't eat beef or drink milk. And because they didn't have hens, they also didn't know the joy of eating fried chicken! Other things that Mayas didn't eat or know about: chips, sodas/pop, watermelon, oranges, mandarins, candy, instant soup, or ice-cream. The poor ancient Mayas!
Food the Mayas ate

Did you know that...

Many of the Spanish names of fruits and vegetables that are used today come from Maya or other indigenous languages, like tomate (tomato), ayote (pumpkin/squash), chocolate, achote (a kind of spice), and aguacate (avocado).
The Mayas planted different types of corn, including blue corn. Can you imagine a blue tortilla!?
Different kinds of corn
Maya Warrior
The Mayas believed that if a man died a warrior, his soul turned into a butterfly.