The Mayan peoples of Mexico and Central America form one of the largest indigenous populations in the Americas. With over 4 million people who identify themselves as Mayan, this is an extremely diverse group. Some Mayans live in the steamy jungles of the Yucatan peninsula, others in the rugged highlands of Guatemala. Some Mayans speak Kaqchikel; others speak Tzotzil, Kekchi, Ixil or Chol. Though Mayan culture is often thought of in terms of its pre-Hispanic achievements, Mayan cultural traditions persist to this day. One area in which Mayan culture is alive and well is its textile tradition. The Mayan people are well-known for the beauty, quality and sophistication of their textiles. This reputation persists because of, not in spite of, the rather simple tools used by Mayan men and women to produce these textiles. The Pitzer Collection of Mayan Textiles at the Sam Noble Museum demonstrates the diversity and beauty of this artistic, though inherently functional, tradition.
Who Are the Maya?
Long before Europeans thought to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, Mayan people conquered the rugged highlands of Guatemala, the dense jungles of the Yucatan and the tropical lowlands of the Pacific coast. Here, Mayan people built vast cities that rivaled those in Europe in terms of size and complexity. These cities were governed by a ruling elite and were supported by an elaborate system of taxation. The Mayans were incredibly successful at exploiting their environment through slash-and-burn agriculture. The surplus that farmers produced went to support huge governmental and religious centers like Tikal, Chichén Itzá and Palenque. For various reasons, many of these large Mayan cities fell out of use, even before Europeans arrived to conquer the “New World.”
But this governmental decline, as well as the changes that occurred with the arrival of the Spanish, did not prevent Mayan people throughout the area from continuing many of their cultural traditions. Mayan farmers continued to grow their crops of corns, beans, squash and chilies, the basis of the Mayan economy. Fishermen on Lake Atitlán fished, potters made pots, weavers wove cloth and painters painted. Mayan priests continued to divine the future and practice their rituals. Mayan children still grew up speaking their native language. Of course, the Spanish Conquest did bring many changes to Mayan life, but the Mayan people, even in the face of political domination, have an incredible knack for persistence.
From Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands to the Lacandon rainforest and to the tropical Yucatan peninsula, the Mayan territory is vast and very diverse. Take a tour of the Mayan homeland.
The Mayan langauges are incredibly varied and often differentiate social and political divisions. Discover more about the linguistic diversity of the Mayan people by exploring the Mayan languages section.
Mayan history was recorded for thousands of years through a hieroglyphic writing system, colonial texts written in Spanish and Mayan, and oral traditions. Take a brief look at Mayan history.
- George A. Collier with Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello: Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (1994)
- Rigoberta Menchu Tum and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray: I, Rigoberta Menchu (1984)
- Dennis Tedlock, translator: Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of the Gods and Kings (1996)
- Ralph L. Roys, translator: The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel (1967)
- James D. Sexton, translator and editor: Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (1992)
- Margot Blum Schevill, editor: The Mayan Textile Tradition (1997)
- Nim Po’t: The Center for Mayan Textiles
Nim Po’t is a consignment retailer for Mayan textiles from Guatemala. Their retail store (and web site) also serves as a museum for hundreds of Mayan textiles organized by village. Several of the pieces in Pitzer collection were purchased from Nim Po’t.
- TRAMA Textiles Association of Women Weavers
TRAMA Textiles is a cooperative of 350 backstrap loom weavers from Mam, Ixil, Kakchiquel, Tzutujil, and Quiche communities.
* Please note that the Sam Noble Museum is not responsible for the content or functionality of these linked websites.
© 2002, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Last updated March 2015. Contact us with comments and suggestions.