Ancient Mayan civilization has left a unique and fascinating historical legacy in Guatemala. Nowadays, Mayan culture is alive and kicking and it has made Guatemala what it is today. A trip to Guatemala will not be complete without taking a closer look at its traditions, worldview, and history. In this post you will find a bit of history and 5 interesting facts about Mayan culture in Guatemala today.
When did Mayan Culture flourish in Guatemala?
Mayan culture in Guatemala has a long history, stretching back more than 4,000 years in the Mesoamerican region (from Preclassic 2000 B.C. to Postclassic 1540 A.D.). This region covers part of southern Mexico, all of Belize and Guatemala, as well as western Honduras and El Salvador. During the last Ice Age (11,500 – 30,000 years ago), the Bering Strait was frozen over, creating an ice bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Nomadic tribes from Asia entered the Americas and then spread southwards, giving rise to indigenous populations all over the continent, including the Maya. During their journey, these nomadic groups domesticated plants and animals and settled in various regions.
Records show that the first populations in Guatemalan territory were located in the northern part of the country, particularly in the Mayan cities of El Tintal, Ceibal, El Mirador and Tikal during the Early Preclassic period (2000 B.C. – 1000 B.C.). Some archaeologists theorize that the Mayans descended from the Olmecs, an ethnic group from central Mexico, which has been referred to as the “Mother Culture”. This suggests that all the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mesoamerica were derived from the Olmecs.
Related article: The 8 best Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
Where are the Mayan located?
The Mayans in Guatemala are scattered all across the country, from the bustling capital to the most remote parts. The most authentic Mayan villages, though, are found in the highlands and the northern area of the country. There is no better way to get to know the vibrant Mayan culture in Guatemala than to visit some of these villages and immerse yourself in their unique way of life. Chatting with the locals in these villages will allow you to experience and learn interesting facts about Mayan culture in Guatemala. Click here to read about how to get to these authentic villages.
What languages do the Mayans in Guatemala speak?
The vibrant Mayan culture in Guatemala is composed of more than 20 different indigenous Mayan groups. The most widespread in the country are the Maya-Quichés, Maya-Kaqchikeles, Maya-Q’eqchíes, Maya-Tz’utujiles, Maya-Mam, and Maya-Ixiles. The main difference between them is their language. Each of these groups has its own language, but due to close contact between them and cultural exchange, there are mixtures of words, phrases, and idioms that further enrich the oral tradition of the Mayans in Guatemala.
The more than 20 Mayan languages in Guatemala have no similarity to any other language family in the world. The origin of these languages lies in the hieroglyphs discovered in ancient Mayan cities throughout the Mesoamerican region. The numerical and writing systems invented by the Mayans are among the most complex and detailed that have ever existed. An example of this is the invention of the concept of zero. However, the Mayans today no longer use these systems on a daily basis. Although a curious fact is that as Guatemalans, we were all taught in school how to write Mayan numbers.
There are four Mayan languages that are unfortunately in danger of disappearing: Itzá, Mopán, Tectiteco and Uspanteco. La Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (The Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala) is the institute that works to conserve and promote the country’s multilingualism. They run programs with the elders of the indigenous communities to create works of literature and to keep teaching the language to the children.
What is the traditional dress of the Mayans in Guatemala?
A distinctive feature of the Mayans is their dress. There are 117 different Mayan costumes categorized in 22 textile types throughout the country. Each category corresponds to a different Mayan group and is classified according to the Mayan language spoken.
Mayan women typically wear the traditional dress on a daily basis. The most iconic piece is the Huipil, a loose-fitting tunic made of pieces of woven fabric. This tunic is deeply meaningful to Mayan communities, and it is a major part of Mayan culture in Guatemala. It takes a long time to make a huipil and the process is extremely laborious! The women who make them incorporate Mayan symbolism into their designs, including animals, volcanoes, mountains, pre-Hispanic and geometric figures – each with its own unique meaning.
The traditional Mayan dress of men is not as widely used as it once was. However, in some highland Mayan villages such as Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Santiago Atitlán and the Ixil region, most men have worn traditional Mayan dress from childhood.
How is Mayan cuisine in Guatemala?
In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayans that was discovered in pre-Hispanic structures in Chichicastenango, there is a mythological narration that says that human beings were made of maize. The story is similar to the one in the biblical Genesis: two Mayan gods used corn dough to create the bodies of four people who started the Maya-Quiché group. This is thought to be a representation of the staple food of the indigenous communities, who rely heavily on this grain. That is why the Mayans here in Guatemala are affectionately known as “Hombres de Maíz” (Men of Maize) and there is even a book with this title written by the Nobel Prize winning author Miguel Angel Asturias.
Every Guatemalan has maize tortillas with the three main meals. Maize is also consumed in a variety of forms: as atoles (a hot beverage made from corn dough, spices, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and occasionally chocolate), cool drinks, desserts, soups, tamales (corn dough filled with spices, meat or chicken, chocolate, dried prunes, and olives, all wrapped in corn leaves), tacos, and even as candies.
While it is true that the consumption of corn is a very important part of the Mayan culture in Guatemala, the typical dish also contains a diversity of hot and non-hot chili peppers, spices, herbs, and grains, all native to the area. There is an amazing variety of sauces made from the combination of these ingredients.
Authentic Mayan dishes:
- Pepian: this is a recipe of Maya-Kaqchikel origin and dates back to pre-Hispanic times. It was served in ceremonies as an offering to the gods. It is a red sauce made by stone-grinding a mixture of several chiles and spices, roasted with cold corn tortillas. This sauce is cooked with chicken or beef.
- Jocon: this is a sauce of Maya-Mam origin made from ground spices and vegetables. It is known for its distinctive green colour which comes from green tomatoes and coriander. It is often served with chicken.
- Kak’ik: this is a tasty turkey and chili broth of Maya-Q’eqchi origin. In Guatemala, turkey (known as chunte or chompipe) is much pricier than chicken or beef, so it is usually served on special occasions in Mayan homes.
- Patin: this is a delicious Maya-Tz’utujil dish that is very popular in the Lake Atitlan area. It is a sauce of tomatoes and spices, cooked with the small patin fish from the lake, meat or chicken. The special touch is adding the leaves of the Maxán, a native Central American plant, and boil them together with the small fishes and the sauce. Patin is usually served with corn tortillas. Enjoy!
I could mention many more dishes from Mayan culture in Guatemala that all Guatemalans are fond of. I will dedicate a separate article to Mayan food, its origins, history, and consumption in the country.
What are the traditions of Mayan culture in Guatemala?
To fully explore the traditions of Mayan culture in Guatemala you would need an entire book. To experience them in person, you can visit the patronal festivals of the Mayan villages of the country. On these special events, there are performances, dances, and coronations based on the cosmovision (the Mayan belief system for interpreting the world and life) and the syncretism between Catholicism and Mayan Spirituality.
Participants in the dances wear costumes representing Mayan deities, animals and the Spaniards during the conquest. In fact, there is one Mayan dance that is officially known as La Conquista. There are more than 10 Mayan dances in Guatemala that depict wars, sacrifices, rituals, defeats, and victories, all going back to the common history of the Mayans as narrated in the Popol Vuh.
In addition to these traditions, Mayan culture in Guatemala has a series of daily practices in the lifestyle of the communities. Many of them involve agricultural work, including times of sowing and harvesting. To bless the land, Mayan ceremonies are held at the beginning and end of these periods. Lastly, the literature of the Mayans in Guatemala includes countless legends that feature mythological beings that are half human and half animal. According to their beliefs, these creatures may signify important events to come.
Get your personalized itinerary
Contact me via:
Please allow 3 – 5 business days to get a response.