Feb 27, 2017

Prehistoric Sustainable Buildings

Don't be a magician,
be magic!

Leonard Cohen

Typical Mayan home.  All adobe wall.  Often the fence is part of the house
Most Mayas lived, and many still do today, in huts called Otoch or Naj. The traditional Mayan house was a single room with rounded corners (think longish oval shape).  It contained no windows, and only one door facing east (like the Navajo’s hogan). Sometimes, movable partitions were propped up or hung up to divide the room. Light and airy hammocks for sleeping or relaxing, swung from poles.  The windowless door was usually made of wood.

A few homes did have wooden floors.  Twenty percent of Mayan houses still have the original earthen or limestone floors but they are slowly being replaced by, supposedly more sanitary, concrete through government projects.   At times, these homes included an open-side palapa (palm covered patio) extending at the back.


In this area, many Airbnb listings show you beds and hammocks as sleeping arrangements
Today, many of these homes have a second door directly across the first one for ventilation and especially if there is an attached cooking palapa.  Some newer versions have windows but these additions made the newer Maya houses less cool in the summer.  With the advent of electricity fans are used to cool off.

No adobe covering the wood poles in this case. 
Using metal at roof peak.
Wall 1/2 rocks (bottom) 1/2 wood poles (top)
Ever so often, members of the family walk, take their bicicleta (bicycle) or tricicleta (three-wheel cart) out to a nearby forest to collect wood for cooking.  As we drive through the Yucatán, we see well-ordered bundles of wood or kindling ready for collection on the side of the road, piled on people’s shoulders walking by, strapped to the back of bicycles or stacked in the front of tricycles. 


Adding the last of the palm leaves before 'weaving' the peak

Sending palm leaves up to the rafters, ready to be woven
The commoner houses were scarcely equipped comprising of only the needed pottery, gourds, or baskets, a metate to grind corn, and utensils used for food and water. They sometimes had wooden platforms that served as beds or seats. 

Trimming excess roofing over doorway
Cooking was usually done on grills with a comal (round griddle) set over rocks and outside under the palapa to keep the heat and smoke of the fire out of the living space.  Driving or walking by, we can see the smoke and smell the fresh tortillas being cooked.  There are also hints of peppers and spicy aromas that make us salivate.  Kids laugh while playing, some chasing dogs, others feeding baby turkeys.  We see the dark silhouette of a woman sweeping the dirt floor of the house, chicken running in and out as she works.  A few people are taking a break in the outside hammocks under shade trees.  Goats and pigs roam the street freely.  We have to weave around them with the car, they do not fear traffic.  It seems like we are going way back in time. 


With attached open side palapa at back
The life in the main room constantly changes. In the morning, all the hammocks are stored away, leaving a large area to be used for the family’s normal daytime activities. At night, the hammocks are hung back and the space becomes a place to relax and sleep.


Turkey babies play time.  I can’t ever figure out how these kids stay so clean…
The most common type of Mayan home is based upon a rectangle with rounded ends of upright sticks or narrow poles tied together and then covered with adobe, a mixture of mud and straw or grass. Some houses had walls constructed of stacked stones or a mixture of some stones at the bottom and poles at the top.  The walls, or parts of walls, may be left un-plastered leaving spaces between the poles through which air can circulate and mothers can keep an eye on children playing outside. We have also seen where only the last foot of poles, right under the roof, is left uncovered for ventilation.


The roofs were thatched with leaves or tree bark but mostly of intricately woven palm fronds (huano) one foot thick or more, lasting about 20 years.  Laid on a wooden frame preferably of the very durable zapote wood, its design was relatively steep to permit swift water runoff.  As the Mayans had no nails, structures of the home were tied together using tropical vines or sisal rope (henequén plant). 


Some homes were raised off the ground on poles while others were built on low rock platforms (high platforms used only for religious or government buildings) all depending upon the general wetness of the location during the rainy season. All in all, they were constructed of organic, sustainable, and easily available materials.  Some homes were painted with lime to whiten them.  Today, it seems the only touch of bright color comes from the front door, we have seen very colorful examples during our travels.


Classic Mayan Naj design.  Part of adobe off to show wood stakes underneath
Family lots were made of the home, a well (or cenote), latrine, chicken coop, garden and a laundry room.  We have also seen many with goat or sheep areas.  Each adult had a separate home.  Families lived in clusters so that they shared a kitchen, garden and other areas.  Sons lived near their father’s home.  In each family, only sons could inherit, so it was important to have a son, or the family compound could one day be lost to a stranger.  If someone committed a crime, families had to pay for it, sometimes losing their homes in the process, a very strong incentive to keep everyone in line.  Many different generations of the same family lived in the compound, each in their own rooms or building, connected by a series of courtyards and patios.


Family 'compound' and courtyard
The homes were built in randomly distributed clusters within the village, rather than the strict grid patterns later introduced by the Spanish. The families had household gods, often with an altar inside the house.

Hammock, altar, sewing machine
A large percentage of the Mayas are poor. They usually are only able to find non-skilled jobs in which they are paid very low wages.  Children help in domestic chores and many of them have an hour or more of workload before starting school in the morning.

Along the fence line
We stayed in a ‘replica’ of a Maya home for about 10 days when we first arrived in Campeche and found it very comfortable.  It is however, like living very close to nature, maybe too close for some people.  We encountered scorpions, centipedes, and insects even though the Maya home we stayed at had just been fumigated against critters.  I hate to think what it would’ve been like if it hadn’t.  We are not too squeamish about such things but it is not for everyone.  I suspect, and may or may not be correct, that one of the reasons Mayas used hammocks to sleep in may have had to do with staying off the floor and away from rats and snakes.   



Reading further on the subject confirmed that thought.  Snakes search warmth at night, someone sleeping on the floor is a perfect target.  Even though the snakes don’t mean any harm, a sudden movement from the sleeper may lead to being bit.  Being above ground in a hammock lessens the risk of such encounter.  The Mayas call their hammocks ‘The Gift of the Gods’ or ‘The Cradle of the Gods’.


Making a hammock.  It takes about two miles of strings to make one... 
It takes 2 days to make one and they get paid $2.00 US for these 2 days of work! 
Even though hammocks did not originate in Mexico, Yucatecans have been weaving them for over 700 years.  It is believed they came from the Caribbean’s Arawak Indians. 


A few more benefits to hammocks: no bed bugs, no mites, no sweaty mattress, and deeper sleep, leading to better concentration.  The swinging effects of the hammock create a synchronization with the brain waves that is likened to what we experienced in the womb, leading to better sleep.  Some research indicates that reading becomes more pleasant because of increased concentration, a benefit to studying.  Miniature replicas of hammocks made of gold were found and are now displayed in museums.  

The one drawback?  Hammocks are more of a solo adventure…

Woman wearing a spotless huipil, feeding birds
Source: Violeta H. Cantarell


Adobe falling off where it gets wet.  Roof peak covered with tar paper.

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