A team led by Professor Heather McKillop of Lousiana State University (LSU) has just discovered conclusive proof that the ancient Maya were producing, storing, and trading vast quantities of salt.
The LSU archeological team began excavating the Paynes Creek area in southeastern Belize in 2004. Now submerged by brackish seawater, the site was once on dry land and surrounded by large stands of mangrove trees. The seawater transformed the mangrove into a large peat bog which is highly acidic and thus able to preserve organic materials like wood for thousands of years.
In 2004, the LSU team found the remains of more than 4,000 wooden posts that were used in a series of large buildings where vast quantities of seawater were boiled over open fires in order to make cakes of salt. These cakes were then loaded onto canoes and traded with cities further inland. But the archeologists had been puzzled due to the near complete lack of animal or fish bones in the area despite knowing that several thousand Maya worked at the site.
It was only this year that the team analyzed some 20 stone tools found at the site under the microscope. With assistance from anthropologist Kazuo Auoyama of Ibaraki University in Japan, an expert on ancient stone tools, the team discovered clear proof that the tools had been used to cut and prepare meat and fish. As the tools were discovered right at the saltworks, the team concluded that the ancient Maya were using salt to preserve fish and meat in vast quantities.
Remnants of pottery were also found at the site of the type known as briquetage. This is well-known to archeologists as many ancient societies such as the ancient Romans and Egyptians would use large ceramic pots to boil seawater in order to produce cakes of salt. Without electricity or refrigeration, the only way for the ancient Maya to preserve meat and fish was by salting it.
If you'd like to learn more about the ancient Maya culture, Cahal Pech Village Resort is located just a stone's throw away from the Maya Archaeological Site of Cahal Pech. Perched on a cliffside above the Macal River, the Maya site Cahal Pech was built as a royal palace for the nobility and their court attendants.