Ancient Maya produced, stored and traded salt, according to study

On October 8, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that sheds new light on how the ancient Maya society of Belize fed its estimated one million people. By carefully examining an ancient salt works at the Paynes Creek region of southeastern Belize, researchers discovered that the ancient Maya were not just producing salt at the site but using it to preserve fish and meat, valuable commodities for trade with sites further inland.

Archeologists have long known that the Paynes Creek area was used to produce salt by boiling seawater and forming large cakes which could be carried inland by canoe. But the near complete absence of fish or animal bones was a mystery until archeologists put some stone tools found at the site under the microscope and saw clear signs that they were being used to cut and prepare meat and fish.

Paynes Creek was originally on dry land, situated near a mangrove-lined lagoon on the coast of southeastern Belize. At some point following the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization around the year 900 AD, the site was flooded, and the seawater converted the mangrove trees into a large peat bog. Peat is highly acidic but it preserves some organic material such as wood from being oxidized. Researchers discovered the remains of approximately 4,000 wooden posts from a series of buildings that were used to boil and prepare cakes of salt.

The ancient saltworks was discovered in 2004 by an archeological team from Louisiana State University led by Heather McKillop with assistance from Kazuo Auoyama from Ibaraki University in Japan. But it was only this year that they completed their analysis of some 20 stone tools found at the site and discovered the “use marks” that showed that the tools were used to prepare meat and fish. Since these tools were found at the saltworks, the logical conclusion was that the Maya were using the salt to preserve fish and meat, the only way to prevent animal products from spoiling prior to the invention of modern refrigeration.

Travelers interested in learning more about the ancient Maya should book a Belize tree house at the award-winning Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. Located in the heart of the Belizean rainforest, Caves Branch is a top birding destination and close to ancient Maya cities like Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and Tikal. Caves Branch also offers combined jungle and beach vacations as well.


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