Slash and burn agriculture in southern Mexico . . . the milpas and yamas

The Southeastern ethnic names Yamacora (Yamacraw) and Yamasee are probably derived from this method of farming.

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

One Summer in Mexico ~ Part 69

Milpa is the Yucatec and Campeche Maya word for a farm field cleared out of a jungle wilderness. Later burning the dead vegetation improves the soil enough to grow crops for several years. Yama is the equivalent word in Totonac, Itza Maya, Kekchi Maya and Eastern Creek (USA). Yama was also the Creek word for the Mapile (Mobile) Indians. Mapile is a Totonac word for “merchants.” One important difference I noticed in a yama was that the owners often built a house and outbuildings within the cleared land. This suggests that they planned to stay longer than the usual 3-4 years that a milpa was farmed. Milpas are much more rare in the 21st century than when I was in Mexico. They are being discouraged by state agricultural officials. I saw a world that was about to be “Gone with the Wind.”

A Cho’i-te Maya yama in Tabasco’s coastal plain

History is more than facts and figures

The reason that I interweave stories of personal and romantic relationships with architecture and cultural anthropology is that much of my education in Mexico was a direct result of those relationships. My friendship with Dr. Román Piña Chán radically changed my fellowship experience from being a wet-behind-the-ear, gringo student-tourist to being deeply immersed within Mexican culture and yes, permanently changed.

I had no clue what a Sephardic Jew was until being in a relationship with Alicia Moreno. I also learned firsthand about the horrors experienced by her family, after the Nazi’s occupied northern France. The only family members, who survived, converted to Roman Catholicism and then were given sanctuary in Mexico. The US still was maintaining a minuscule quota for French Jews, but an unlimited number for other categories of French citizens.

I had no clue what a Burgundian was until sharing a tent near Oaxaca with Yvette de Veaux from Lyon, France. I learned that France claimed to have religious freedom, but in fact, Protestant architects, such Yvette, generally had to move to the UK, Canada or USA to get a decent job. The prejudice had nothing to do with any religious practices, but rather the Huguenots’ reputation for being brainy and workaholics. I learned that the Burgundians had cone-shaped heads and emigrated from the Baltic Coast of Sweden around 250 AD. In the 21st century I realized that it is the Burgundian homeland in Sweden, where there are unique petroglyphs, identical to those at Track Rock Gap, GA and some other petroglyphic sites at the headwaters of the Soque and Chattahoochee Rivers. Most of the petroglyphs in northern Georgia are like those in southwest Sweden or Southwest Ireland.

And yes, I would know very little about the modern culture of the Mayas, including the milpas, without being in a very sincere relationship with Ana the Tour Guide with Benefits. Being a friendly couple, constantly showing public affection, we were immediately accepted by almost all the Mayas we met. They offered us hospitality and invited us to dine with their families. You see, they thought that we were on our honeymoon. In contrast, I was often initially feared by the indigenous peoples, when traveling alone.

Most educated, Mexican town-dwellers at that time were afraid of rural areas and the wilderness, in particular. When I returned to Mexico the following December, Alicia Moreno and I hiked up the least steep side Cerro Gordo, north of Teotihuacan. At age 20, it was the first time in her life that she had ever hiked in the countryside.

Ana’s extreme passion was driven from suddenly being liberated with the blessings of her parents and simultaneously being able to roam anywhere, with me as her bodyguard. After confirming that I had military training, Ana’s father loaned me an M4 Carbine Automatic Rifle, with a 30 round clip, to protect his beloved, firstborn daughter. Actually . . . Ana was not exactly a helpless Southern Belle, even though she spoke English with a Southern accent. It was acquired from Southern archaeologists, me and the Tejano (Native Spanish Texan) lady, who managed their resort. Ana the Campeche Southern Belle always carried a pistol and a high-powered, bolt action hunting rifle in the Jeep. LOL

In the months and years that followed our first time together, Ana would become frustrated by the distance between us then come groveling back to me, via airmail . . . always at the wrong time . . . because she only met Mexican men, who looked great on the disco floor, but who were terrified of Mother Nature. LOL

It was Ana who taught me about slash and burn agriculture . . . deep within the heart of Yucatan Peninsula, where Gringo tourists never ventured. Join me as I go back with restored color slides to those days when Ana and I explored Maya milpas and villages that could only be reached by 6 to 10 feet wide dirt trails.

This 6 feet wide trail led from our Maya hut to a series of actively cultivated and abandoned milpas in the Puuc Hill country. Since there were no mud holes or gullies, our Jeep was able to traverse it easily.
We pass through an abandoned milpa to reach one being burned.
All the trees, vines and bushes are cut down. When they are sufficiently dry, they are burned.
The milpa was ready for planting seeds after a rainy season had dissolved the ashes into the soil.
In the first year, this Campeche milpa grew a dense crop of corn.
Here is another first year milpa.
By the third year, the farmer would be forced to burn out the weeds before planting seeds. This severely eroded location was in the Territory of Quintana Roo. Notice that the top soil has been totally destroyed – both by excessive heat and by erosion. Very little vegetation grew on abandoned milpas.
By the third or fourth year, the soil became so infertile that the cornstalks were widely spaced and the spaces in between were filled with weeds.


  1. Howdy, Another College level class. A 10!!!!

    On Fri, Apr 30, 2021 at 2:09 PM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” The Southeastern ethnic names Yamacora (Yamacraw) > and Yamasee are probably derived from this method of farming. by Richard L. > Thornton, Architect and City Planner One Summer in Mexico ~ Part 69 Milpa > is the Yucatec and Campeche Maya word for a f” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! When I took those slides, I didn’t dream that in seven years, I would be living on an abandoned farm in the North Carolina Mountains. We took a modern approach than slash and burn! LOL Twelve years later, I would be named the US Soil Conservation Service Farmer of the Year. Life is indeed a box of chocolates.

      Liked by 1 person

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