Saturday, September 8, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 24: The Maya household

A Maya house is called a nah. These are usually one-room structures, but sometimes include an open-sided palapa extending from the back. Family meals are cooked in the palapa in order to keep the heat and smoke of the fire out of the living space. I decided to use my last post in this NW Yucatan series to focus on the life of the ordinary Maya. In my posts on the ruined cities of Dzibilchaltún, Labná, and Sayil, I have displayed and remarked upon the temples, palaces, and residences of the elite class. These are certainly dramatic and photogenic, but they don't represent how the great mass of Maya lived in ancient times. In fact, large numbers of Maya still live in houses like the one above and in ways that their ancient ancestors would immediately recognize. Stone carvings showing houses identical to this one can be seen at the Nun's Quadrangle at Uxmal and on the interior side of the Labná Arch. (Photo from Labná, Yucatan)

The structure of a Maya Nah

Foundation of an ancient nah at Tikul. The rocks are limestone, easily carved and plentiful throughout the Yucatan. In the lower left is a stone trough, probably used for water storage. The great majority of ruins around any of the ancient cities are humble homesites like this. In Maya society, a relatively small number of elites rested on an immense base of Maya farmers and workers. The common people produced the agricultural surpluses that allowed the elites to exist, built their palaces and temples, and crafted the jewelry, pottery and other luxury items. The nobles and priests maintained their positions of wealth and power through religion, custom, and force, if necessary. (Photo from Tikul, Yucatan)

Construction of a Maya home. The nah is set on an oval foundation made of limestone blocks. The floor might be limestone, as in the design above, or possibly just packed earth. The walls are supported by upright poles set around the base and extending into the earth. Between these are set smaller vertical poles. The walls may be plastered with adobe, or left unplastered with spaces between the poles through which air can circulate and mothers can keep an eye on children playing outside. The roof is made of still more poles, bound together with twine made of sisal, a local plant. It is then covered by intricately interwoven palm fronds, layered so that the roof may be a foot thick or more. There are no windows and the single door is set in the middle of the front wall. Occasionally, there will be a second door directly opposite in the back wall, especially when there is an attached cooking palapa. The entire structure is made from natural, locally-gathered materials.

View from the back side. Cooking containers and utensils hang from the rafters of the palapa. The cooking area is in the U-shaped wall at the left end of the palapa. This is made in a similar fashion to the walls of the nah itself. The U-shape protects the fire from gusts of wind and acts to concentrate and reflect heat. The only concessions to modernism here are the two long, narrow pieces of corrugated metal along the rooflines. These help direct rain away from the seams at the roof peaks. (Photo from Labná, Yucatan)

The adobe constructon can be seen on the outside wall. Here you can see the upright poles with adobe packed around them. Adobe is one of mankind's oldest and most universal building materials. It is made with packed mud, using plant material as a binder. When dry, the adobe can last a very long time if properly repaired. If this small section is not dealt with before the next rainy season, the wall may eventually be weakened. The people of Mesoamerica used the adobe method shown above for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. Many Maya have continued to build their homes in the traditional way even 500 years after the introduction by the Spanish of the concept of adobe bricks. And why not? It worked pretty well for a very long time. (Photo from Labná, Yucatan)

Ceiling of the nah. Here you can see how the ceiling supports and rafters are cunningly bound together using sisal twine. The thick layer of palm fronds was woven so closely that I could not detect a single glint of sunlight through the ceiling. Overall, the structure seemed cozy, warm, and dry. Most Maya homes were part of small, dispersed villages made up of a number of related families. The homes were built in randomly distributed clusters within the village, rather than the strict grid pattern later introduced by the Spanish. The families had household gods, often with an altar inside the nah. However, they also paid homage to the multitude of major and minor gods in the Maya pantheon.  Each village was protected by its own "balam" a mystical jaguar being. Special homage was given to the gods called Chaacs who lived in and around caves and cenotes. If properly respected, the Chaacs would continue to provide the water so important to life. Today, traditional Maya of Yucatan, Guatemala and Chiapas may practice Catholicism, but they are still careful to observe ancient rituals. In modern terms, we might call this "hedging your bets".

Village and market life

Model of an ancient village scene. The nah design varies in some details from the Yucatan house shown previously because the diorama houses reflect the Guatemala style. However, the overall design is still quite similar. The weather in most Maya-occupied areas allowed much of ancient family life to be conducted outdoors, as it still is today. Above, the adults and older children chat while working on various daily tasks. Small children play under their watchful eyes. One man repairs a leaky roof, while another arrives with a recently slain deer over his shoulder. In the background, men work on small, slash-and-burn fields, called milpas, where corn, beans, and squash are grown together. The cornstalk provides an upright framework for the climbing bean vines. The bean plants gather nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil, which in turn nourishes the corn plant's roots. The squash plants spread their leaves on the ground under the corn stalks and bean plants, keeping the soil moist and free from weeds. These three plants formed the base of the ancient Mesoamerican diet, as they still do for millions of rural Latin Americans. The ancient method of growing corn, beans, and squash in close proximity is still practiced, as we saw on a recent visit to the Maya village of Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo of diorama from Guatemala National Museum of History and Anthropology)

A day at the market. On market days, the Maya families brought their surplus products and hand-made crafts to the local town or city. When we visited Sayil and Chichen Itza, we saw areas that archaeologists have identified as the sites of markets such as the one above. Chemical analysis of the soil even indicates where the lines of stalls ran, and pottery fragments indicate where ceramics were made and sold. I have also visited the "modern" market--called a "tianguis"--in the village of Ajijic where I live, as well as others in Yucatan and many other places around Mexico and Guatemala. Except for the mode of dress (topless women are rare) today's street markets are virtually identical to the ancient scene portrayed above. (Photo of diorama from Guatemala National Museum of History and Anthropology)

Food storage and preparation

The Maya used materials from the natural world to create household implements. Above, dried gourds are used for storing and serving food and liquids. They rest in a shallow basket made from sisal cords woven across a circular frame of tree branches. The basket is hung by the cords from the ceiling near the cooking area. The typical nah was not large, and suspending such baskets reduced the need for other furniture. Another important, space-saving household item was the hammock. Woven-sisal hammocks were suspended from rafters and upright posts in the nah during sleeping hours. When the sleeper arose he or she rolled the hammock up and tied it to the overhead rafters. Another benefit of sleeping above the floor in a hammock was that the occupants didn't need to worry about poisonous snakes or insects crawling into bed with them.

An ancient mortar and pestle. The ancient people used a variety of methods to grind food and other materials. The limestone device above may be 2000 years old but it closely resembles the mortars and pestles that can be found in many modern kitchens. It was used to grind up various kinds of food, but also to prepare pigments for painting, as well as herbs and other natural medicines gathered from the forests in which the Maya lived.

A clay griddle balanced on surrounding rocks formed the stove. The most important ancient food cooked on this comal (griddle) would have been the flat, circular, corn tortillas so familiar to modern Mexicans and even to people in the United States and Canada.

Important plants

The Yucca plant was very important to the ancient people of Yucatan. Over thousands of years, the Maya learned to use the wide variety of plants and animals in their environment. I have already mentioned beans, corn, and squash. The plants I show in this section can be found in the wild, and are just a small sample of the hundreds of different plants available to the Maya. The Yucca shown above is also known as Cassava, and its formal name is Euphorbiacaea. The plant's roots are starchy and contain high concentrations of protein and energy.  The ancient people sometimes used it as a dessert, preparing it by boiling the Yucca with honey over firewood for a whole day. Yucca is still widely used in Latin American cooking, and is often boiled or fried as a substitute for potatoes. (Photo from Tikul, Yucatan)

The Chaya plant is also known as the Spinach Tree. It is very robust and its edible leaves are perennial. Chaya is native to the Yucatan Peninsula and is very popular there, as well as in Central America. The leaves are used like cabbage, or can be cooked and prepared like Spinach. At the Chaya Maya restaurant in Mérida, they served us a drink made of Chaya run through a blender. The plant is rich in nutrients such as vitamins, mineral salts, dietary minerals, and enzymes that are very beneficial to the human body. (Photo from Tikul, Yucatan)

Aloe is a spiny succulent. The formal scientific name is Aloe Vera, but the Maya call it Petk'inki. The plant is rich in vitamins, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and copper. Although modern people often use the Aloe as an ornamental plant, the Maya discovered and used its important medicinal properties. It is a good emollient for skin, has antiseptic properties, and helps healing because it enhances cell growth. (Photo from Tikul, Yucatan)

The sisal plant had multiple uses for the ancient Maya. It is also known as Henequén, but it picked up the sisal name from the port on the northwest coast of Yucatan through which it was exported in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The ancients cultivated the sisal, starting from the original wild Chelem plant. The fibers were harvested by peeling back the tips of the long spines. They were used to make hammocks, ropes, twine, baskets, nets, sandals and other items important for day-to-day life. In the 19th Century, the International Harvester company developed a mechanical harvester that revolutionized wheat production in the United States. They found that twine made from sisal was ideal for mechanically bundling the wheat as it passed through the machine. Demand for Yucatan's sisal exploded, and soon 400 haciendas were producing it in Yucatan. The sisal made millionaires of the hacienda owners, but many Maya were kept as virtual slaves to ensure cheap labor and regular production. When the local Maya labor force was insufficient, the hacendados illegally imported actual slaves from Cuba. Liberating the sisal workers was one of the goals of the 1910 Revolution in Yucatan. (Photo from Dzibilchaltún, Yucatan)

Animals of the Maya World

To the Maya, the powerful jaguar possessed god-like qualities. Jaguars were abundant in the ancient Maya world, as well as elsewhere in Mesoamerica. They were feared, respected, and revered by the ancient people. The jaguar is the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, and the third largest in the world. Only the African lion and the Indian tiger exceed the jaguar in size, and it is capable of bringing down the largest prey in its jungle habitat. The huge cat is an intelligent and efficient predator, and thus gained the admiration of the ancient people. One of the two main warrior cults at Chichen Itza used the jaguar for its emblem, and many rulers of the Maya city-states used "balam" (jaguar) as part of their official name. Because the jaguar hunts at night, a dangerous and mysterious time to the ancients, the cat was thought to be linked to the underworld. In fact, the chief god of the underworld is often portrayed with jaguar ears and wearing a jaguar pelt. As mentioned previously, each Maya village was thought to be protected by its own balam. (Photo from La Venta Park Zoo, Villa Hermosa)

A large crocodile rests at water's edge. Crocs sometimes lie with their mouths open to cool their bodies, and to allow small birds to peck away food debris that collects around their fearsome teeth. This croc is probably around 4 meters (12 feet) long. The reptiles are stealthy hunters, lying submerged except for their eyes while they wait for unwary prey, which sometimes includes people. When the prey comes within range, the croc lunges out of the water, grabs the unwary creature, and drags it back underwater. Once in the water, the croc goes into its "death roll", turning over and over while firmly gripping the prey until it dies of shock or drowns. The ancient Maya ate the meat of the crocodile tail and archaeologists have found the remains of crocs at Maya ceremonial centers where the skulls were used ritually. The Maya "believed that the world rested on the thorax of a huge caiman or alligator and that this, in turn, floated on a vast lagoon."  When seen floating on the water's surface, the spines and ridges and rolling curves of the crocodile's body do resemble the surface of the earth, with the sky above and water all around. (Photo from Canyon Sumidero, Chiapas)

The deer is among the 10 most commonly depicted animals in ancient Maya art. Deer provided a major source of protein, the skin was used for leather, and the bones and horns for various tools. Deer heads were sometimes worn in rituals and ceremonial dances. The Classic era Maya sometimes depicted the Ball Game as a deer hunt, with the players dressed like hunters. Deer are also mentioned in the Maya's Popol Vuh creation story. (Photo from Tikul, Yucatan)

Two boa constrictors snuggle together in their cage. It was not until I examined this photo closely that I realized it shows not one boa constrictor but two, coiled about one another and both apparently asleep. The white spots on the lower left quadrant are light reflections on the glass used to prevent their escape. Snakes were attributed many mystical qualities in the Maya world. In fact, one of the most widely depicted mythical beings, not only in the Maya world but throughout Mesoamerica, is the feathered serpent known as Kulkulkan or Quetzalcoatl. One of the iconic images of Mexico is the Castillo at Chichen Itza, also known as the Temple of Kulkulkan. (Photo from Tikul, Yucatan)

An iguana shows its capacity for camouflage. I almost missed this fellow while walking through a ruin. He almost perfectly blended with the rocks around him. This iguana is about 1 meter (3 ft.) long, and some can reach 2 meters (6 ft.). They are harmless, and the Maya used them as a good source of protein. The supreme god of the Maya pantheon is Itzamná, sometimes depicted as an iguana. Additionally, an iguana sometimes replaces a crocodile as the beast on whose back the world rests. (Photo from Dzibilchaltún, Yucatan)

A family of turtles huddles together in their pen. Turtles were still another important source of protein. They ranged from smaller varieties like the ones above to giant sea turtles found along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The sea turtles were also a source of eggs that the coastal Maya learned to collect when the giant amphibians came ashore to lay them. Turtle shells were sometimes used as drums in Maya ceremonial dances. Like crocodiles and the iguanas, the turtle's back is sometimes depicted as the surface on which the earth rests. At the Turtle House at Uxmal, the facade of the building contains a number of carved stone turtles, attesting to their importance in the mythology. (Photo from Tikul, Yucatan)

This completes Part 24 of my NW Yucatan series, and ends the series itself. I hope you have enjoyed traveling with us to this fascinating part of Mexico. We intend to visit again and again, since there is so much left to see. I always encourage feedback, and if you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly, 

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave me your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Hola Jim, puedo observar que llevan un excelente blog. Una colección de fotos muy bonitas de México.

    I am from Mexico myself except that I am not in Oregon USA for other reasons. I am planing to go back to mexico. En unos cuantos años.

    Voy a seguir navegando el blog. Yo tambien me dedico a blogging. Today I just thought I say hi!

    jorge jacobo


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim