Mayan Agriculture

Mayans were an agrarian society who relied on agriculture for their food needs. They lived in a region where rainfall was not very abundant, so Mayans came up with a number of innovative methods of growing crops. The soil in Mayan regions was also not very fertile, yet Mayans grew a large variety of grains, vegetables and fruits. Most of the commoners in the Mayan society worked on agricultural lands in order to ensure that sufficient food was grown for the entire society.

Growing Maize

Maize was the staple diet of the Mayan society. So Mayans not only developed huge quantities of maize, they also innovated its production and cultivated several different types of it. Maize was a fulsome source of nutrients, so it was extensively used as a daily food. Mayans typically ground maize into flour and mixed lime into it. They then made flat tortillas from it, in some cases filling these tortillas with meats and vegetables. Commoners also made and consumed a drink made from maize as part of their daily breakfast.


Mayans were an agrarian society who relied on agriculture for their food needs.

Mayan Field Rotation Method

Mayan lands were not known for their fertile soil. In fact, the soil near most Mayan cities was such that it was exhausted after cultivation of one or two seasons. Mayans came up with a solution for this by cultivating crops using field rotation. They would choose a cultivable land and then grow crops on it for two successive years. After two years, the soil of the land would be exhausted and they would abandon it, moving on to some other field. The soil of the first field would rejuvenate and become fertile again in five years. That’s when the Mayan farmers would return and again grow their crops on it for two more years.

Slash and Burn Method

When the Mayans typically returned to a field after having abandoned it for five years, it was grown with natural vegetation such as bushes and weeds. Since the Mayans needed the soil to be rich in nutrients, they slashed all the vegetation overgrowth on the land and burned it. The nutrients and minerals from the burned vegetation returned back to the soil, making it fertile and once again usable for crop cultivation. This is how Mayans refreshed the field for re-cultivation after a period of abandonment.

Cutting down Vegetation

Mayans didn’t have any metal tools to use on the fields. So they rather made use of stone axes and sharper tools made of flint. These tools were used in cutting down the vegetation when clearing a field. The vegetation that was cut down was then left to dry in the open field for some time. Since their tools didn’t help with chopping down large trees, Mayans didn’t let larger trees grow on the fields and cut them down in their early years. They lit up the mass of the vegetation once they were sufficiently dry.

The Cultivation Season

Typically, Mayans relied heavily on proper seasonal rainfall. They would cultivate the seeds just ahead of the yearly rainy season and then wait for the rains. The cultivation was done by boring small holes in the fields with digging sticks and then planting the seeds in these holes. If the rains got delayed or the annual rainfall was scarce in any year, it posed a lot of problems for the Mayans. Some Mayan cities resolved this by building excellent stone reservoirs for water storage.

Mayan Water Reservoirs

Although Mayans depended on rainfall for growing their crops, rains were not a very dependable source. Some years would bring a lot of rain and yet the next year would be arid and dry, making crop cultivation unpredictable. Some Mayan cities resolved this problem by building stone reservoirs. They usually built these reservoirs underground and lined them with limestone. In this way, they were safe from sunlight-caused evaporation and any seepage underground. The reservoirs were used to collect surplus water during rainfall and to store it for later use. By relying on these reservoirs, Mayans were able to mitigate their dependency on rainfall.

Other Water Sources

Apart from direct rainfall and man-made artificial reservoirs, Mayans also had access to different cenotes as an effective source of water. Cenotes were huge natural wells which existed throughout the Mayan lands. During rains, the water would flow through underground rivers and gather up in these cenotes. The Mayans then drew water from these cenotes for agriculture and crop cultivation. The significance of the cenotes was so much that several Mayan cities were founded right next to such cenotes so that they could be a ready source of water for growing crops.

Foods grown by Mayans

Mayans primarily expended their energies and water resources on growing maize, since that was the primary Mayan crop. They also grew a number of other vegetables and grains, although in smaller quantities. These included potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin and cucumbers. Mayans also grew fruits such as pumpkins, watermelon, breadfruit, papaya and avocado. Different kinds of cotton was grown to make clothing from it while tobacco was also grown on Mayan fields. Among the more exotic plants, Mayan grew cocoa and vanilla. Cocoa was used to make a luxurious kind of drink for the elite and was also used as a valuable currency. Vanilla was cultivated mostly for its exotic fragrance and was mostly limited to use by the elite of Mayan cities.

Mayan Agriculture Summary

Mayans lived in a region where water wasn’t abundantly available. And yet, they had to rely on agricultural for most of their food needs. So Mayans devised different methods of effectively utilising the water from rainfalls. They had access to natural wells filled by rainfall, which the Mayan called cenotes. They also built artificial reservoirs of stone which were located underground and lined with limestone. These reservoirs were used to store water during rainy seasons so as to be used later. The primary crop which Mayans grew was maize, although a vast variety of other fruits, vegetables and exotic crops were also grown. Mayans used field rotation method to continue unabated cultivation and utilised slash-and-burn methods to recoup a field after a period of abandonment.