The Maya city of Chichén Itzá is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and – along with Uxmal, the Puuc Route, and other archaeological sites – it’s one of the main reasons to visit Yucatán. There’s no doubt that the architecture of their impressive buildings is a testament to the technique, creativity, science, and world view of Maya culture, as well as their close relationship with the land.
Beyond pyramids and temples, the peninsular Maya possess a technique and a way to build their houses that efficiently uses the region’s materials and ancient knowledge.
The morphology of the Maya house has resisted centuries of change as well as climate conditions including hurricane seasons, droughts, and – in recent years – cold seasons (known as La Heladez). These houses are a refuge from the hot and humid weather of the peninsula, offering a cool and well-ventilated space. On the other hand, the palm roof gives the Maya house a smoke exit, making it possible to use a stove for cooking and to keep warm when it gets cold.
The peninsular Maya have used a great variety of plant species in the construction of their homes. The roofing may be made out of Guano palm (“Kuum” in Maya) or out of grass on the coast (since it’s more resistant to the salty ocean breeze) or even a mix of both at the same time. Many trees used as posts (“Okom” in Maya) are hardwoods that are resistant and come from old trees. The rest of the wood used in the construction comes from abandoned Milpas, in some cases. There can be up to 100 different species of trees used in the construction of the Maya house. This is an example of ancestral Maya knowledge with regards to sustainable ecosystem management. By using small amounts of different types of wood, they can continue using the resources found in nature without causing deforestation.
The construction of the Maya house is ecological and not only involves botanic knowledge, but understanding of forestry as well. Bland and flexible woods, palms, and grass are used for the arcs. Vines are used to tie the structure of the house together without the need of a single nail, screw, or gram of cement. As if this wasn’t enough, the soil and rock of the region (both in their natural states and mixed to make lime) are utilized for masonry. The housing spaces are traced so that homes are strategically oriented according to the sun’s path so that they can have a vegetable patch. In some cases, two or three houses are built one behind the other depending on the size of the family.
On your next trip around Yucatán, be sure to make a stop and acknowledge the wisdom and science that is transmitted generation to generation in the construction of Maya houses.
For more information, read:
Aurelio Sánchez Suárez. 2006. La Casa Maya Contemporánea. Usos, Costumbres y Configuración Espacial, Península Vol (1). No. 2: 81-105.
Aurelio Sánchez Suárez (Coordinador). 2017. Xa’anil naj. La Gran Casa de los Mayas. Universidad Autónoma De Yucatán.
Editorial by Andrea Medina and Felipe Trabanino
Doctor in Mesoamerican studies focused on Maya cultures
Photography by Valentina Álvarez and Felipe Trabanino for use in Yucatán Today
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