Why was farming so important to the ancient Mayas?

Home learning focus

Learn about the ancient Maya civilisation and why farming was so important to them.

This lesson includes:

  • one video exploring life in ancient Maya society
  • one video examining why farming was so important to the Mayas
  • two activities to build knowledge and understanding


Watch the video below as Akbal introduces us to life in the Maya civilisation, which existed in Central America 1,000 years ago.

learn more about the ancient Maya

Why was farming so important to the Mayas?

Farming was really important to the Mayas. Most people grew their own crops in small fields.

Despite their size, these fields were used to grow many kinds of crops at the same time, such as maize, beans, squash and chilli. If farmers grew more than they could eat, they traded the leftovers in markets.

One reason the Mayas were so successful at farming was that they studied the stars and the weather. This meant they were able to create very detailed calendars, which told them what time of year to plant crops and when they should harvest them.

Watch the video below to learn more about Mayan farming.

How did the ancient Maya farm?

Three types of Maya farming

Raised field

The Mayas used this method to farm areas of land that otherwise would have been too wet to use. Small canals were created by digging out soil from beneath the water and piling it up to create small islands. Maya farmers could then grow crops on these islands while they harvested the fish that swam in the canals.

Terrace farming

This is where walls are built to make small flat fields one on top of the other. It was useful for increasing the amount of farmland in mountain areas. Most terraces were small, but in some parts of the Maya lowlands, they dramatically transformed entire regions!

Slash and burn

Also known as ‘shifting’, this is when jungle areas are chopped down and burnt. The ash is high in nutrients, so it was perfect for growing crops. However, within a few years, the nutrients would be used up and the farmers would have to move elsewhere to let the forest regrow.

Raised field (top), Terrace (left), Slash and burn (right)


There are lots of fun ways to show your historical knowledge of the ancient Maya civilisation, online and offline.

Here are a few you could try.

Activity 1

Test your knowledge with our ancient Maya true or false quiz.

Activity 2

Can you answer the following questions? Try writing at least three sentences for each.

  • Who were the ancient Maya?
  • Why was farming so important to the Maya?

There's more to learn

Have a look at these other resources from around the BBC and the web.

More lessons for Year 4 and P5
The Maya civilisation
What happened to the Ancient Mayas?