The Maya people of Mexico and Central America form one of the largest indigenous populations in the Americas. With over 4 million people who identify themselves as Maya, this is an extremely diverse group. Some Maya live in the steamy jungles of the Yucatan peninsula, others in the rugged highlands of Guatemala. Some Maya speak Kaqchikel; others speak Tsotsil, Q’eqchi’, Ixil or Ch’ol. Though Maya culture is often thought of in terms of its pre-Hispanic achievements, Maya cultural traditions persist to this day. One area in which Maya culture is alive and well is its textile tradition. The Maya 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 Maya men and women to produce these textiles. The Pitzer Collection of Maya 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, the Maya conquered the rugged highlands of Guatemala, the dense jungles of the Yucatan and the tropical lowlands of the Pacific coast. Here, the Maya 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 Maya 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 Tik’al, Chichén Itzá and Palenque. For various reasons, many of these large Maya 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 Maya throughout the area from continuing many of their cultural traditions. Maya farmers continued to grow their crops of corns, beans, squash and chilies, the basis of the Maya economy. Fishermen on Lake Atitlán fished, potters made pots, weavers wove cloth and painters painted. Maya priests continued to divine the future and practice their rituals. Maya children still grew up speaking their native language. Of course, the Spanish Conquest did bring many changes to Maya life, but the Maya, 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 Maya homeland.
The Mayan languages are incredibly varied and often differentiate social and political divisions. Discover more about the linguistic diversity of the Maya by exploring the Mayan languages section.
Maya 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 Maya 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)
- 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 2018. Contact us with comments and suggestions.