We’ve all heard of the huge, elaborate Mayan cities scattered through southern Mexico and Guatemala, but the truth of the matter is that the Mayan people didn’t live in cities at all!
The Mayans were mostly farmers – working slash and burn fields to grow their corn and other food. Because they lived in tropical rain forests, they were forced to create a new farm every few years. It seems contrary to common sense that they would need to move frequently – given how rapidly plants grow in the rain forest – but it’s true.
Soil in a rain forest is notoriously unfertile. The nutrients provided by decaying plants and animals get used up quickly by the fast-growing plants, leaving nothing left in the soil for additional growth. To solve that problem, the Mayans cut a new swath out of the jungle every couple of years and burned the old growth to provide nutrients to the soil. The new plot would provide decent crops for about three or four years before the nutrients had been leached out of the soil and the farmer was forced to cut a new field.
Because of the poor soil, it is estimated that there could never be more than about three families living in one square mile of land – the land could never support than that. Which means, of course, that they lived very spread out.
So what about these cities they are so famous for? The cities were religious centers only. Priests lived in the cities, and would carry out daily religious duties, particularly sacrifices. The peasants would periodically gather for religious ceremonies and festivals. For reasons that we don’t understand the Mayans abandoned their cities around 900 AD.
Life for the majority of the Mayan people didn’t change much at all after the cities were abandoned. The peasant continued to work their fields. They continued to carve our new farms every few years. The only thing that changed for them was that they no longer made their periodic journeys to the cities.