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.
They Got Drunk With Enemas Made Of Fermented Chocolate
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.
Ancient Mayans Put Gems In Their Teeth
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.
They Worshipped Over 165 Gods And Dabbled In Human Sacrifice
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.
They Ate Delicious Things Like Avocados, Chocolate, And Tamales
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.