Ancient Maya Produced Salt and Salted Fish: Study

by johnsmith

Like the ancient Roman, Asian, and other civilizations, the ancient Maya produced salt and salted fish — storable commodities for marketplace trade, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stone tools from the Paynes Creek Salt Works, Belize. Image credit: Louisiana State University.

Stone tools from the Paynes Creek Salt Works, Belize. Image credit: Louisiana State University.

Professor Heather McKillop, an anthropologist at Louisiana State University, and her colleague, Ibaraki University’s Professor Kazuo Aoyama, analyzed stone tools from the Paynes Creek Salt Works, an ancient salt works in Belize.

“Since we found virtually no fish or other animal bones during our sea-floor survey or excavations, we were surprised that the microscopic markings on the stone tools, which we call ‘use-wear,’ showed that most of the tools were used to cut or scrape fish or meat,” Professor McKillop said.

The study site is a 3 sq.mile area surrounded by mangrove forest that had been buried beneath a saltwater lagoon due to sea level rise.

“Sea level rise completely submerged these sites underwater,” Professor McKillop noted.

“The soggy mangrove soil, or peat, is acidic and disintegrates bone, shells and microfossils made from calcium carbonate. Therefore, no remnants of fish or animal bones were found.”

“However, the mangrove peat preserves wood, which normally decays in the rainforest of Central America.”

After finding the preserved wood in 2004, the team mapped and excavated the underwater sites with funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.

They discovered more than 4,000 wooden posts that outline a series of buildings used as salt kitchens where brine was boiled in pots over fires to make salt.

The pottery is also used in modern and historic salt-making and is called briquetage.

The salt was hardened in pots to form salt cakes and used to salt fish and meat, which were storable commodities that could be transported to marketplaces by canoe within the region.

The ancient Maya may have traveled by boat along the coast and up rivers to cities about 15 miles inland to trade and barter.

“These discoveries substantiate the model of regional production and distribution of salt to meet the biological needs of the Classic Maya,” Professor McKillop said.


Heather McKillop & Kazuo Aoyama. Salt and marine products in the Classic Maya economy from use-wear study of stone tools. PNAS, published online October 8, 2018; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1803639115

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