While much is known about the Mayans’ achievements, the question remains: what was daily life for Mayans like? The Mayan Empire stretched through much of Central America, including southern Mexico, all of Belize and Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and the classical Mayan period was between 250 and 950 CE. In the early 16th century, however, the Mayans were conquered by the Spanish. Through the Spanish conquistadors, especially Diego de Landa, there exists a pretty comprehensive guide (actually his account has been called an “ethnographic masterpiece”) as to what life in ancient Mayan civilization was like. While they have things in common with other ancient civilizations – like the penchant for head binding they share with the ancient Egyptians – there are also many truly unique elements to everyday life for the Mayans.
This list will let you know what being a Mayan was like on the day to day – what they ate, how they dressed, what they did for fun… and of course how they performed human sacrifices. Those are just too fun to leave out.
Ancient Mayans drank Balche for ceremonial purposes. Balche came from the fermented bark of the tree of the same name and was sweetened with corn and sometimes anise. This was like the Mayan version of ambrosia. They considered it to be a drink passed down from the gods. Chocolate-based fermented drinks were also popular, and sometimes mixed with hallucinogenic substances. They also drank pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave.
The Mayans were also really into enemas for the purpose of getting as thoroughly intoxicated as possible. In Mayan art, the administration of enemas was pretty prevalent.
“The men are great sodomites, cowards, and, bored with drinking wine with their mouths, lie down and extending their legs, have the wine poured into their anus through a tube until the body is full,” wrote one Spanish conquistador about the practice.
The Mayans had a pretty advanced form of dentistry for their time, especially when it came to cosmetic dentistry. While no dentist in their right mind would perform this procedure today, it was pretty common among the wealthy Mayans to have gems inserted into their teet. Some of the lower classes would also have this procedure done. This must have been a grueling procedure, because the dentist had to actually carve a hole in the dental enamel. Resin from plant sap was used to glue the gem in place. There were several skulls found that exhibited this bizarre cosmetic practice, and these skulls showed that the Mayan dentists were quite skilled. For example, they knew how to drill (typically with obsidian) without hitting the nerve in the tooth.
It’s actually not that bizarre, either; “tooth gems” were a big trend in the ‘90s in Sweden and America, although they didn’t involve a surgical procedure.
The Mayans were a polytheistic people. They worshiped over 165 different gods. But perhaps the most infamous aspect of their religion were the human sacrifices they would offer up to the deities. Children were a favored sacrifice because of their innocence. Sometimes, the child would be kidnapped and sold for nothing more than the price of a bag of red beans. The primary method of sacrifice was cutting open the chest and removing the heart, and it would be performed by a priest called the nacom, and assistants called chacs would hold the victim down. If the sacrifice was performed on top of a pyramid, the body would then be thrown down the stairs. Besides children, slaves and prisoners of war or even just average, middle-aged adults would be sacrificial victims.
Diego de Landa, one of the most famous chroniclers of the Mayans, witnessed human sacrifices. The victim was painted blue and then led up the stairs of the pyramid to have their heart ripped out. Besides ripping out the victim’s heart, sacrifices would also include drowning, beating, and shooting the victim with an arrow.
The staples of the Mayan diet were maize, squash, and beans. These three food items were referred to as the “three sisters.” Besides these three main foods, the Mayans enjoyed a pretty diverse diet. On top of growing the three sisters, they also cultivated chili peppers, sweet potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, papayas, onions, and garlic. For meat, the Mayans would consume dog, turkey, iguana, venison, and wild pig, known as peccary. They would also fish in lakes and in oceans.
The most basic of traditional meals was “atole,” which was a warm corn gruel they usually served for breakfast. They were the first civilization to make corn tortillas, and they invented tamales, which are corn husks or avocado leaves stuffed with protein and vegetables. They were also the first civilization to roast cacao seeds to make chocolate. So, you have the Mayans to thank for some of your favorite dishes today.
The ancient Mayans had some pretty extreme body modifications. Both men and women would have tattoos. However, the process was said to be very painful, so only the “bravest” of Mayans would get them. The design was first painted on, and then it was cut into. The wound would then be covered with paint. Men would not get tattooed until after marriage, and women would get their upper body tattooed but avoided their breasts.
The Mayans would pierce their bodies not only for beautification purposes, but also as a bloodletting sacrifice to the gods. They would pierce their ears, genitals, and tongues with thorns or stingrays spines. They would then put the blood on pieces of paper and burn them as offerings to the gods.
They also pierced for beautification purposes. The Mayans were master jewelry makers, and both men and women pierced their lips, noses, and ears. Only men would wear nose and lip plugs, though.
For a deadly good time, the Mayans would play a game called Pok a Tok. It was a ballgame that they inherited from the Olmecs. It’s also the oldest team sport in the world. It consisted of a 10-pound rubber ball and teams of one to four people. The game was similar to volleyball, in that the ball had to be kept in motion, and it had to be passed over a line. However, the players could not use their hands, and they had to hit the ball off their mid-section and hips. When you’re dealing with a 10-pound ball being hurled at you, you’re talking about a lot of bruises. The largest Pok a Tok court was found in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza and measured about 315 feet long and 98 feet wide. Later, the Mayans added rings to the walls surrounding the ball court, and if the ball was passed through one of the rings, the game was over.
The game was pretty brutal. Sometimes players would die after getting hit with the ball and suffering internal bleeding. Prisoners of war were also forced to play, and the losing team would be offered up for ritual sacrifices. Talk about a high-stakes ball game.
Like many other ancient civilizations, including the ancient Egyptians, the Mayans practiced head binding. The Mayans considered elongated skulls, flattened foreheads, and slightly crossed eyes to be standards of beauty. To the Mayans, this appearance resembled an ear of corn, from which they believed humankind was created. They had a few methods for achieving this look. To start, though, they would bind an infant’s malleable skull between two planks of wood for long periods of time.
“This is done because our ancestors were told by the gods that if our heads were thus formed we should appear noble and handsome and better able to bear burdens,” one native remarked to Spanish chronicler, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo.
The Mayans put a lot of energy into their appearance, especially their hair. Ancient Mayans had very long, thick, and beautiful black hair. Both men and women would grow their hair long and usually wear it up and pulled back tightly in a ponytail to emphasize the length of the forehead. The men may have shaved the hair on the sides of the head but left a long streak of hair down the middle. The men would also burn the hair at the hair line to give the appearance of an even more drastic receding hairline. Women would wear their hair in braids, sometimes interwoven with ribbon. The elite class would wear elaborate headdresses, consisting of animal skins, jade, and other precious materials.
The Mayans were a very hygienic people who bathed often. They would wash their hands and mouths after eating and would often take cold water baths and sometimes steam baths before religious ceremonies. When it came to illness, though, they believed disease was an infliction of the spirit. They would often bleed parts of the body – by doing things like cutting the forehead – to rinse the body of the illness. They also had several herbal cures for ailments. They believed that getting drunk on Balche and vomiting was a cure for upset stomach and diarrhea. They also mistakenly thought that tobacco was a cure for asthma.
Among the common Mayans (also known as the memba uinicoob), the clothes were pretty basic. Men would typically wear a loincloth, and sometimes they would add a poncho in colder weather. Women wore blouses and long skirts, or huipil. They would wear accessories like bracelets, necklaces, anklets, and earrings. They would make the fiber for the clothing from the agave plant, where they would extract fibers from the leaves. They would also use cotton plants, spinning both sources of fabric into cloth and coloring it with dyes like indigo. This was pretty much everyday clothing. Of course, the elite had more elaborate costumes that would be embellished with shells and jade. Religious ceremonies also had more intricate costume designs.
Like most ancient civilizations, there was a pretty straightforward division of labor. Among the commoners, men would go work in the fields, known as milpas, tending their crops. Women would look after the home. They would raise the children, prepare meals, collect honey from beehives, make pottery, and weave clothing. Tending the fields was no easy task either. The ancient Mayans didn’t have any beasts of burden or draft animals like horses or oxen, so it was manpower alone that plowed the fields. As a result, they typically used slash and burn farming techniques.
Mayan commoners and wealthy nobles alike both lived in residential compounds. The wealthier nobles would just have far nicer accommodations. Extended families would all live under the same roof, and the house was arranged by several buildings (fewer for commoners) situated around patios and terraces. In commoner households, family members would sleep on the floor on reed mats.
The homes were usually made of limestone, which was plentiful in the region. The floor was made of white, packed soil, and the walls were covered with adobe and made white with limestone.
The Mayans connected cities through a system of paved roads. But to get to more remote areas, they would use canoes. The roads, or sacbeob, were raised above ground, sometimes reaching eight feet in height. Because the Mayans didn’t have draft animals, slaves would have to transport goods on these roads in large slave chains. For water transportation, the Mayans would build canoes up to 50 feet in length.