Mayan Culture

Modern Mayan culture has its roots in a very ancient culture. Ancient Mayan civilization spanned more than 3000 years and featured a written language, agriculture, a well-ordered social class system, a well-developed religious system, development of a calendar and trade. Much of the ancient tradition and culture has survived and been incorporated into the modern Mayan culture.


Mayan religion is a hybrid of Christianity and ancient Mayan beliefs and rituals. The sixteenth century church, a central institution in the process of conquest, set the tone of the future relationship by working to replace Mayan religion with Spanish Christianity and to Hispanicize Mayan culture in general. (Stoll, 2003)

Although many of their Gods have been replaced with statues of Christianity, the stories barely resemble the Christian versions. Today, devout Maya worship at mountain and cave shrines, making offerings of chickens, candles and incense with a ritual alcoholic drink.

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The Maya are a very superstitious people and have countless superstitions regarding events in mature which forewarn the observer of sickness, disaster, and death. Shaman/ daykeepers keep count of the 260 day ritual calendar and provide healing by identifying curses and offended ancestors, counting seeds and crystals in their divinations, and performing curando rituals.


Mayan marriage is not prearranged by the family, although in ancient times it was accepted practice. In the more traditional villages, the young man must still ask the father for his daughters hand in marriage and certain rituals are followed. There is a traditional engagement and wedding ritual dance that many Maya use in their wedding ceremonies. Most young married couples will live with either set of parents until they can begin a household on their own.

The average marriage age of Maya people is 16 for females and 19 for males. Very few Maya remain unmarried as family and children are very important to the Maya.


Family is a very important part of Maya culture. The average Maya family will have 6-8 children and most newlyweds have their first child within a year of marriage. In the domestic life of the Maya, family ties are strong, although outward displays of affection, such as kissing and embracing, are rare. Couples are considered affectionate if they carry out their respective duties faithfully. To their babies, however, the Maya are demonstrative and fondle and caress them, using baby talk as white parents do. It is evident that most parents are very fond of their children. Very rarely do fathers chastise their children physically and the mothers resort to harsh punishment only occasionally.   (Steggerda, 1941, p. 49)

Food Production Strategies

Many of the Mayan still live much the way they did when the Europeans came, weaving, cultivating corn and beans and collecting firewood to cook and heat their adobe houses. Electricity and road access have not changed the local traditions. Corn, which was cultivated by the ancient Mayans, remains the main crop. Most farmers still use the slash and burn method of farming used by their ancestors.

Other strategies are share cropping and renting land to grow corn crops. The Maya form groups of up to twenty men, usually kin, rent a large piece of land, and divide it among themselves. Although this arrangement is much preferred to wage labor on the plantations, it  requires a minimum amount of capital for transportation, food, tools, seed, and so on, and expertise in dealing with the Ladino world. Many lack these resources and are forced into the largest of the temporary migratory streams. (Early, 1982, p. 88)

Outside Contact

The Maya, like most people who live in small and homogeneous groups where strong social controls operate, are conservative and unprogressive. Slow to take up new ideas, their attitudes and their material culture have been very little changed by modern trends and technological developments. Their pottery, weaving, and cross-stitch work have remained very much the same during the entire history of Yucatan. In general, they have not adopted the Spanish language but rather the Spaniards have adopted the Maya language.

Their mode of dress has not changed appreciably for hundreds of years, and it is my belief that their daily life is very similar to that which their ancestors led. Only in the large Yucatan towns and cities, where social contacts are freer and where social controls cannot be maintained as strongly as in the smaller communities, are there signs of change. In such towns the European mode of dress is gradually being adopted, especially by the women, and cosmetics are commonly used. The people petition the government for radios, electric lights, and corn-grinding machines, and the idea of progress is gaining a hold in their minds. The cooperative movement and similar modern methods of economic organization are being tried. (Steggerda, 1941, p. 37)

In Belize, the founding of the Maya Village Indigenous Experience is attempting to change the limited outside contact of the Maya culture by exposing it to tourism. They hope to bring money to the communities and improve the quality of life in the villages. (Steinberg, 2004)

Many other Mayan communities are following this example in an effort to become more modern but they maintain the ancient rituals and beliefs, much like modern day New Orleans.

These five concepts show the history and persevering culture of the Mayan people. Traditions with religion and family provide a rich background to pass on to the next generation. While they are struggling to enter the modern age, many of the more traditional Maya see no problem with the lifestyle they currently possess.

Living in the United States, technology is readily available and most people are adept at using it. Things we take for granted such as telephones, computers, television, and automobiles are slow to make their way into the more rural areas of the Maya culture but they live full lives without these things. This is a huge culture difference because most Americans do not believe they can live without technology.

The family tradition is also vastly different. Americans live a much faster paced life and many things must be balanced: work, children, marriage. Mayan women are traditional homemakers and Mayan men do the heavy labor. American women do many of the heavy labor jobs and not many people can afford to stay home with the children full time.

Both cultures have pro’s and con’s to their lifestyle and culture but both are ever changing and adapting to the world around them. Both realize the importance of religion within a culture and continuing the race through children. The United States, however, is not one culture but hundreds and this gives it a unique background. It is much more varied than the ancient Mayan history the modern Maya still cultivate.


Early, J. D. (1982). The Demographic Structure and Evolution of a Peasant System: The Guatemalan Population. Boca Raton, FL: University Presses of Florida.

Steggerda, M. (1941). Maya Indians of Yucatan. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Steinberg, M. K. (1994, Summer). Tourism Development and Indigenous People: The Maya Experience in Southern Belize. Focus, 44, 17+. Retrieved June 08, 2007, from Questia database:

Stoll, D. (2003). Dow, James W. & Alan R. Sandstorm (Eds). Holy Saints and Fiery Preachers: The Anthropology of Protestantism in Mexico and Central America. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9(3), 595+. Retrieved June 09, 2007

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