chapter  21
33 Pages

Mesoamerican Civilizations

Village Farming Like other tropical cultivators, the Maya used ancient slash-and-burn farming methods to grow maize and beans (Coe and Koontz, 2008; S. Evans, 2008). Come late spring, the farmer would cut down a patch of forest on well-drained land during the last of the dry season, then burn off the wood and brush. This was a critical time in the farming year, when the air was thick with wood smoke and dust. Great clouds of gray smoke billowed into the washed-out blue sky as the afternoon wind blew fine ash and soot over everything. As the burn subsided, the ash and charcoal fell on the soil. The farmers and their families worked the natural fertilizer into the earth, then planted maize seed in holes poked into the soft ground with a stick. Timing was everything, for planting had to coincide with the first rain showers. Such cleared gardens, called milpa, remain fertile for only about two years. The farmer must then move on to a new plot and begin again, leaving the original milpa to lie fallow for between four and seven years. When the Maya were purely village farmers, their settlements lay amidst patchwork quilts of newly cleared plots and regenerating land, surrounded by thick forest that separated them from their neighbors. But as the farming population rose, expanding communities gradually ate up virgin land.