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Learning from the Maya About Diversity, Culture and Ecology~Teacher’s and Parent’s Guide
with Maya Arts and Crafts of Guatemala/Artes y Artesanías Mayas de Guatemala Coloring Book

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Lesson 2. Bags, Baskets, Bundles, Gourds, and Nets:
Ancient and imaginative ways for making, storing and carrying things

(Grades 2-5 or according to judgment of teacher)


To help students

  • to appreciate the ancient ways that Maya artisans use to make articles for carrying loads and their methods of transporting things from one place to another
  • to have a physical experience of carrying in the manner of the Maya


The Maya, like indigenous people in other parts of the world, have developed ingenious and imaginative ways to carry things using flexible and rigid containers. In spite of the advent of plastics, maguey, leaf fibers, reeds, bamboo, cotton and still other natural materials continue to be utilized by Mayan artisans for twine, ropes, and bags, baskets, bundles, and nets — all flexible containers. Natural rigid containers — gourds — either grow on trees or vines and also have use for carrying, storing, displaying food and other things. Though pottery is another important kind of container, it is too big of a subject for this lesson!

drawing A
Drawing A. Maya people carry things with bags, baskets, bundles, nets, tumpline and gourds. Their environment provides all materials needed to make them. Click image to open and save a printable version (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).

Many of the techniques to make these articles and the ways of using them have been known to the Maya for hundreds, even thousands of years. Such is the case for the methods used by the boy spinning maguey fibers into twine and constructing a bag (see page 11). It is a marvel to see even young children utilizing such millennia old techniques.

Weaving cloth on the backstrap loom — more often used for clothing but as well for bags or bundles — began at least 6000 years ago (see page 7). This and many of the crafts used by Maya people today are “ancient” and because they are still made and used today, they comprise a remarkable living heritage.

Thus we see the Maya’s techniques of making and using articles for carrying and storing has a long history. They have special importance since until the arrival of the Spanish, they had no knowledge of the wheel. Before then, they had to develop means to transport everything they needed themselves, as well as to store food crops and other kinds of articles. But today these ancient practices take on a new value when the Mayas use of them reduces their reliance on plastic bags, ropes and cardboard boxes or other non biodegradable containers.

Drawings in the coloring book show articles that the Maya people make and use for carrying and storing. These things can been seen on pages 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 18, but you can look for baskets, bags, nets and gourds in other drawings, too! Each child should have copies of drawing A and drawing B, “Traditional Maya Ways of Carrying Things.”

child's drawing of woman with basket
Crayon drawing by a Maya child shows a woman carrying a basket.
child's drawing of man with net
Drawing done by a Maya child of a man carrying a load of corn with a tumpline and net.

There are five different traditional categories of flexible and rigid containers:

  1. Bags are generally carried by people with a strap on the shoulder. Less frequently, the strap is put around the forehead and the bag rests on the person’s back. Using cotton, maguey, wool, or other natural fibers, they may be quite small or very large. Artisans fabricate bags using net making, crochet and knitting techniques. Some are simple and basic, while others have designs that are so complex and attractive that they become veritable works of art.
  2. Baskets, carried on the head or with the hands, generally by women and girls, also have importance as storage containers. Maya basket makers use a variety of natural materials, from bamboo to grasses and employ a number of techniques. Size varies greatly from a few inches in diameter and height, to several feet. While most often round, Maya produce a variety of shapes, even square baskets, and incorporate attractive designs.
  3. Bundles carried by the Maya on top of the head, on the shoulder, over the arm or in the hand, can be very large or as small as a handkerchief tied around money and used instead of a coin purse. The handwoven pieces of cloth they commonly use to wrap them can make the bundle become an article of beauty. A large bundle cloth may also be tied to make a kind of sling over the forehead and with the load inside resting on the back. When buying tortillas from a seller in a market, the purchaser can bring a clean cotton towel to wrap the tortillas rather than getting them in a plastic bag. See Lesson 4 for a reference about wrapping food and other items in large leaves.
  4. Gourds grow in many areas of Guatemala on either vines (they are related to squash) or on trees. It is thrilling to see a gourd tree with numerous gourds hanging from branches like cups. Even if plastic items frequently replace a number of their uses, gourds have a continuing place in Maya life, as containers for things as varied as tortillas, weaver’s thread (see page 7), or items displayed in the marketplace. Gourds cut in several shapes become large spoons or ladles. To drink water or traditional beverages, Maya like using drinking gourds of several shapes and sizes (see boy with a gourd in hand in drawing A). Gourds might have incised or painted designs. One town in Guatemala has fame for its decorated incised gourds (see page 18).
  5. Nets for large loads carried on people’s backs, as well as on the shoulder, have long had great importance in agricultural societies. Maya use them to transport their corn and other produce home from fields. One often sees horses with cargo nets on their backs or nets on the top of buses. Maya make traditional nets by hand (see page 12) with natural maguey fibers (see maguey plant on page 11). The advent of more export oriented agriculture in Guatemala means that all kinds of nets are being used less. At the same time, petrochemical companies now manufacture plastic rope and twine for net making. But in their traditional way, Mayans continue to fashion them of natural fibers.
drawing B Drawing B. The Mayas use large and small bundles in various manners that can surprise those unfamiliar with carrying things this way. Click image to open and save a printable version (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).

Tumplines along with twine and rope are vital for attaching to nets or other items to make them more transportable. See example of a water jar carried by a girl with a tumpline and and a rope (see drawing A).

A tumpline consists of strap (a type of sling) along with a rope. The strap — often woven of maguey fibers or made of leather — goes over the forehead and in order to carry a load. As seen in drawing A, the rope attaches to a net or to other things such as water jar.

In Guatemala, transporting loads using the tumpline and net method may be the only way to haul a corn harvest from steep mountain fields where only a person can go. Maya also frequently use tumplines and nets to carry many kinds of burdens as they walk to and from market.

Twine and rope may be used alone to make loads more transportable, as when tied around a rolled up mat (see drawing B, which shows a woman with a mat on her head).  Indeed, it is hard to over emphasize the importance of simple rope and twine. Their use began thousands of years ago as shown by section of fossilized twine found 15,000 years ago, in the caves of Lascaux, France. But the earliest known such remains in the Americas date from 8500 to 6500 B.C.

The ancient cultural roots underlying the present day use of Maya crafts used as containers and to transport things become understandable by knowing a little about their history and by looking closely at them.

In Canada and the USA, these customs have largely been forgotten and most people carry items in factory made plastic and paper bags. Few have the need to carry burdens long distances. But when we need to do that, we use backpacks instead of nets and tumplines.

Unlike the past, today, not all Mayans use their bags, nets, baskets, bundles and gourds. New roads and more bus transportation have made their lives somewhat easier resulting in less need to carry heavy loads long distances. Even with this and other changes, crafts and the traditional methods to utilize them still have a role to play. Many, both in Guatemala and elsewhere, believe they comprise a cultural treasure.

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