Every Day Life In The Mayan Empire Was Way Weirder Than You Thought

While much is known about the Mayans' achievements, one question lingers in the minds of historians and archaeologists who examine the artifacts they left behind: what was daily life like for Mayans? The classical Mayan period was between 250 and 950 CE, and the Mayan Empire stretched through much of Central America, including southern Mexico, all of Belize and Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In the early 16th century, however, the Mayans were conquered by the Spanish. Through the Spanish conquistadors, especially Diego de Landa, there exists a comprehensive guide (actually de Landa's 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.

  • They Got Intoxicated With Enemas Made Of Fermented Chocolate

    They Got Intoxicated With Enemas Made Of Fermented Chocolate
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / No known copyright restrictions

    Ancient Mayans drank a beverage called balche for ceremonial purposes. Balche came from the fermented bark of the tree of the same name and was sweetened with honey 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 these were sometimes mixed with hallucinogenic substances. They also drank pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave.

    Evidence shows the Mayans were also into enemas for the purpose of getting as intoxicated as possible. Depictions of enemas being administered are prevalent among Mayan art. One anonymous Spanish conquistador wrote about the practice in Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan, “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."

  • Ancient Mayans Put Gems In Their Teeth

    The Mayans had an advanced form of dentistry for their time, especially when it came to cosmetic dentistry. While no dentist in the western world would perform this procedure today, it was fairly common among the Mayans to have gems inserted into their teeth. This must have been a grueling procedure, because the dentist had to actually carve holes in the dental enamel. Resin from plant sap was used to glue the gems into place. There were several skulls found that exhibited this 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. 

    Recent history shows the Mayans were actually ahead of their time; “tooth gems” were a big trend in the '90s in Sweden and America, although that trend didn’t involve a surgical procedure.

  • They Worshipped Over 165 Gods And Dabbled In Human Sacrifice

    The Mayans were a polytheistic people: They worshiped more than 165 different gods. But perhaps the most infamous aspect of their religion was the tradition of offering up human sacrifices to those deities. Children were a favored sacrifice because of their inherent innocence. Sometimes, children would be abducted and sold for nothing more than the price of a bag of 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 corpse would then be thrown down the stairs. Slaves, POWs, and even average Mayan adults could be victims offered for sacrifice.

    Diego de Landa, one of the most famous chroniclers of the Mayans, witnessed human sacrifices. The victims were painted blue and then led up the stairs of the pyramid for the ritual. Besides removal of the victims' hearts, sacrifices also included drowning, beating, and shooting the victims with arrows.

  • They Ate Delicious Things Like Avocados, Chocolate, And Tamales

    They Ate Delicious Things Like Avocados, Chocolate, And Tamales
    Photo: Kaldari / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

    The staples of the Mayan diet were maize, squash, and beans, together referred to as the "three sisters." Besides these main pillars, the Mayans enjoyed a pretty diverse diet, also cultivating chili peppers, sweet potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, papayas, onions, and garlic. For meat, the Mayans consumed turkey, venison, iguana, dog, and wild pigs known as peccary. They also fished in lakes and in oceans.

    The most basic of traditional meals was atole, a warm corn gruel usually served for breakfast. Mayans 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 modern dishes.

  • Tattoos And Piercings Were A Huge Part Of Their Culture

    The ancient Mayans had some fairly 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 pierced their bodies not only for beautification purposes, but also as a bloodletting sacrifice to the gods. They pierced their ears, genitals, and tongues with thorns or stingrays spines. They 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 wore nose and lip plugs, though.

  • They Took Their Ballgames Very Seriously

    They Took Their Ballgames Very Seriously
    Photo: Madman2001 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    The Mayans played a game called pok a tok, a ballgame that they inherited from the Olmecs. It’s also the oldest team sport in the world. The game consisted of a 10-pound rubber ball and teams of one to four people. Similar to volleyball, the ball had to be kept in motion and 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. 

    The largest pok a tok court was found in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, measuring about 315 feet long and 98 feet wide. Later, the Mayans added rings to the walls surrounding the ball court; if the ball was passed through one of the rings, the game was over.

    The game was brutal. Sometimes players would perish after getting hit with the ball and suffering internal bleeding. POWs were also forced to play, and the losing team would be offered up for ritual sacrifices.