How Salty Fish Helped the Maya of Belize Bolster Their Economy

A new study suggests that workshops on the coast of Belize were not only producing salt, but also preserving animal meat

stone tool
Stone tools discovered in Belize's Paynes Creek Salt Works Louisiana State University

When 20 stone tools were found at a Maya salt production site in the lowlands of Belize, researchers assumed they had been used to cut wood. But microscopic analysis revealed that the instruments had instead been used to chop up meat and fish—a surprising result, since few animal bones had been found in the area.

As Rachel D. Cohen reports for NPR, the fact that meat seems to have been prepared at the ancient salt kitchens adds a new dimension to our understanding of the importance of salt to the Maya economy: the workshops in Belize, it seems, were not just producing salt in large quantities, but also using it to preserve food that could then be sold in the marketplace.

Heather McKillop, an anthropologist at Louisiana State University, and co-author Kazuo Aoyama, an anthropologist at Japan’s Ibaraki University, detail their analysis of the stone tools in a new study that appears in PNAS. The tools were preserved in the Paynes Creek Salt Work, a 3-square-mile study site, which was once adjacent to a coastal lagoon. There solar evaporation naturally created highly saline waters that the Maya used to produce salt. After the production sites were abandoned, and encroaching sea levels flooded the area, the surrounding mangrove forest preserved traces of its past life.

Mangrove peat is acidic, which is why researchers suspect that no fish or animal bones have been discovered alongside the objects. However, Mangrove peat does not destroy wood. Since 2004, McKillop and her students have discovered more than 4,000 wooden posts that denote a series of salt kitchens in the area, according to a Louisiana State University statement. Thanks to the peat's preservation properties, today Paynes Creek is the only known location of Classic Maya wooden structures, which date from 300-900 A.D.

Pottery vessels found at the site reveal that workers were boiling brine in pots, and collecting salt from the evaporated brine. Salt pots from three of the Paynes Creek salt kitchens seem to be standardized in dimension, suggesting that workers were packing the salt into cakes and shipping them off to be traded inland.

McKillop’s research into Maya salt production is helping to dispel a misconception previously held by archaeologists—namely that the Maya of Belize’s southern lowlands had to import salt from the Yucatan Peninsula because there were no salt resources nearby. On the contrary, McKillop tells Cohen, “the coastal Maya were an integral part of the Mayan economy because they produced and traded a basic commodity.”

Salt is essential to the human diet, and not only because it makes meals more delicious. Sodium plays an important role in proper nerve and cell function. Salt can also be used to preserve food, which is why salt and salted fish was important to ancient civilizations around the globe. Now, the new study suggests that the Paynes Creek salt kitchens showed the Maya did so as well, producing both salt cakes and salted animal meat.

As the study authors write, the salt kitchens of coastal Belize thus contributed “storable commodities that had additional value for further trading,” underscoring the region’s importance to a thriving ancient economy.

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