Mayan Farming

Mayans lived in a region which wasn’t very hospitable to agriculture. Yet they subsisted entirely on their agricultural produce. To accomplish this, Mayans implemented many innovative methods and undertook many measures in order to ensure that they could grow enough crops each year. These included methods such as slash-and-burn when using fields for cultivation and stone reservoirs for storing water. The most widely grown crop in the Mayan regions was corn, maize being the Mayan staple diet.

The Problem of Water

The areas inhabited by the Mayans have been variously described as tropical rainforests and seasonal deserts, because though these areas had a thick layer of vegetation, the soil wasn’t fertile enough for proper cultivation and required rainfall every year. Mayans resolved these problems by undertaking several innovative methods. Notable among these was the construction of stone reservoirs underground. These reservoirs were lined with limestone to stop any seepage. During rainy seasons, Mayans stored water in the reservoirs and if a dry season commenced later, they would draw water from the reservoirs to cultivate the crops.


Mayans implemented many innovative methods and undertook many measures in order to ensure that they could grow enough crops each year.

Slash and Burn Method

Slash and burn was a common method used by the Mayans when cultivating the fields. The Mayan region had a thin upper layer of soil. After two consecutive harvests, this layer was exhausted and Mayans had to abandon the field and move to another portion of the land. The abandoned field was left on its own for up to a period of five years. Then the Mayans chopped down any vegetation which grew up on it in the interim and drying vegetation was put to fire. The burnt remains of the vegetation returned to the soil minerals and nutrients required for a proper harvest. Mayans were then able to re-cultivate the field for another two consecutive years.

Terrace Farming

Mayan civilisation was spread over a vast region. So while some Mayan cities had access to level land for agricultural farming, others confronted hills. Mayan cities located near hills turned them to their advantage by creating terraces along the slopes of these hills. The Mayans created the terraces by lining them with a wall at the border. This helped them eliminate any erosion and also mitigate water runoff by securing water within the fields. Maize and other crops were grown on these terrace farms which were watered using canals constructed by the Mayans in such a way as to use water most efficiently.

Raised Bed Farming

Many Mayan regions in lowlands had swampy lands where it was hard to cultivate crops. Mayans worked around this problem by creating raised beds. These raised beds were typically created right by the canals and then the Mayans cultivated their crops in them. Similarly, they built raised farms by creating them at an artificial height. They did this by propping up mats of woven reed at some height from the swampy waters. On top of these mats, they placed the fertile mud from the bottom of the swamps and then cultivated seeds in this mud. Such farming was very fruitful, yielding two to three crops in a single year.

Mayan Farming Tools

Mayans didn’t have any metal tools, and most of their farming tools were made from stone and wood. When they had to slash down the vegetation on a field in order to dry and burn it, they typically made use of stone axes. These axes comprised of a long shaft of wood and at its end, a piece of sharpened stone was attached. The axe was effective for felling smaller plants but was not useful against larger and stronger trees. To plant the seeds, Mayans used simple wooden sticks. They dug small holes in the field and then placed the seeds in the hole before watering the field.

Major Mayan Crops

While the Mayans cultivated a large variety of crops, maize was their primary produce. Mayans produce sufficient amounts of maize to feed their entire population since it was a staple diet which was consumed daily. Mayans ground maize into a paste after soaking it in lime and made tortillas from this floor. Maize was also consumed as a drink and a sort of gruel. Most of the cultivable land around Mayan cities was used to grow this primary crop. Apart from maize, Mayans also many vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes. Chili peppers were also grown by the Mayans and was a common flavouring ingredient. Among the fruits grown by the Mayans were papaya, guava and avocado.

Personal Garden Farming

Mayan households were fashioned so that an extended family lived together and had its own personal garden. In this personal garden, Mayans would grow different kinds of vegetables and fruits. The garden was mostly used to farm non-maize crops meant to supplant the cooking supplies of the Mayan kitchens. These garden were usually looked after by the women while the men went on to farm or hunt.

Exotic Plants Farming

Mayans also grew a number of non-essential exotic crops and plants. Most notable among these were cocoa beans. Cocoa beans were usually consumed by the nobility in the Mayan and non-Mayan cities, so they were cultivated for their high demand and price. Tobacco was also grown and was usually smoked for pleasure. Mayans also grew vanilla for its sweet scent, often cultivated in the personal gardens of the rich nobility.

Mayan Farming Summary

Mayans were an agrarian society which relied heavily on farming activities for their annual food supply. The land in the Mayan regions wasn’t exactly conducive to farming but Mayans made it cultivable using various methods. They used slash-and-burn method to make fields cultivable after a period of abandonment and also used raised terraces near swampy areas. Most Mayan households had a personal garden to grow vegetables while major crops, such as maize, was grown just outside a city. Mayans relied on rain water for their farming needs and constructed stone reservoirs to store rainwater in order to use it in times of droughts. Maize was the primary crop grown by Mayan farmers while they also grew many kinds of vegetables, fruits and exotic products such as cocoa.