Maya commoners made up the widest but lowest part of their society’s social pyramid. As in most of the Mesoamerican cultures, daily life depended on social class. At the top were the king and noble families. Most nobles were elite warriors, priests, scribes or government officials. In the middle were the artisans, traders, weavers, potters and warriors. Since Maya culture depended on agriculture for food and trade, most Mayas were farmers during the growing season. After harvest, many of them would turn to work on building the incredible Maya cities.
Life for Maya commoners involved hard physical work. That doesn’t mean their lives were unhappy or unsatisfied. Farming families lived simply but ate well. Their work that provided food for the family and the surplus fed everyone else. Women worked daily in their homes, cooking, grinding corn, raising the children, tending gardens, checking beehives and weaving cloth for their own clothes and the market. Men and boys went off to tend fields called milpas where maize or corn, beans and squash grew together. The central crop was maize but they also grew chili peppers, sweet potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, papaya, onions and garlic. Some families kept livestock like dogs, ducks and turkeys. Men also hunted deer and a wild pig known as a peccary and fished in the rivers, lakes and oceans.
Besides farming, Maya commoners, called memba uinicoob, might work as porters, limestone quarriers or servants to the noble class, but most were farmers. There were no draft animals such as horses or oxen to help with plowing or carrying. Manpower alone did all the work. The Maya had no metal, but obsidian and flint provided the sharp edges needed for many daily tasks.
A Maya farming family would start their day early. The extended family all slept together in their one-room house, sleeping on reed mats.Breakfast consisted of a porridge called saka that was made of cornmeal mixed with water and flavored either with chilies or honey. Men and boys wore simple loincloths and added a cape if they were cold. Women and girls wore blouses and long skirts. After breakfast, women started weaving or making pottery. Men and boys went to the fields.
During the day, men and boys would eat a dumpling made of corn and filled with vegetables and meat while at work. After work, at home the family would gather for the main meal, filling tortillas—a flat bread made of cornmeal dough—with vegetables and meat or fish when they had it. Everyone would settle down to sleep when it got dark.
Life wasn’t all work for Maya commoners. At least every month, a religious festival took place in the city and everyone would go to sing and dance and worship their many gods. Maya children played with toys as children do everywhere. Festivals meant feasts of delicious foods. They might watch a ball game called Pok-A-Tok, which was often played as a religious ritual but was also played for fun.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Mayans. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Mayans.
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