Artifacts in Belize Capture Extensive Salt-making Industry of Ancient Mayans

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Although abundant in the coastal areas of Belize, salt was a scarce resource in the inner cities of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala in ancient times. To reach these inland areas, researchers believe that salt was imported from the Yucatan coast; the manner of transportation, however, was not clear. During a systematic underwater survey of the Punta Ycacos Lagoon in 2004, researchers found an important piece of the puzzle – a wooden canoe paddle.

The ancient Mayan’s salt-making industry came to light when four saltworks were discovered in Punta Ycacos Lagoon, a large saltwater lagoon in Belize’s Paynes Creek National Park. Remnants of jars and bowls excavated suggest that the Mayans boiled seawater to produce salt. The seemingly standardized sizes of pottery hint that there was mass production of salt carried out by distinct work groups. Because of this discovery, a team of anthropologists conducted another search at Punta Ycacos Lagoon to determine the extent of salt production and how bulks of salt reached the Peten region.

More Salt Sites Found

Led by Heather McKillop of the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University, the team discovered 41 more saltworks in Punta Ycacos Lagoon, increasing the number of underwater salt sites to 45. Using a land-based archaeological technique of pedestrian survey, the team walked and snorkeled on flotation devices across the lagoon.

Most of the new sites found were covered in mangrove peat, which provided a matrix for the preservation of wood. They found wooden buildings, a wooden canoe paddle and other wooden products as well as some pottery. The largest structure found was at Chak Sak Ha Nal where 112 wooden posts defined the exterior walls of a rectangular wooden building; inside the structure were 31 more posts seemingly forming interior rooms. The presence of a wooden canoe paddle, recovered from the K’ak’ Naab’ site, suggests that canoes were used as modes of conveyance. This paddle, researchers say, is a primary evidence of pre-historical Mayan travel and navigation.

Radiocarbon Dating Salt Site Artifacts

Samples of the paddle, wooden posts, and the pottery were sent to Beta Analytic, Inc. in Miami, Florida, for radiocarbon dating. According to the lab’s results, the objects were from 600-900 A.D. The radiocarbon dates of the wooden products concur with the age of the associated ceramics also found in the lagoon. Through radiocarbon dating and further analysis of the ceramics, researchers dated Belize mass production and transport of salt to the height of Late Classic Maya civilization when salt demand in the Peten’s interior cities was at its peak. Dr. McKillop maintains that Belize’s coast became a significant source of salt to the Peten inner cities during this period.

The ancient paddle proves that Mayan folks used canoes to transport bulks of goods such as salt to the inland Maya cities. The wood structures most probably served as facilities for storage or production workshops, and the pottery debris at the site indicates that seawater was reduced to salt through the boiling process. Researchers also noted that salt sites outside of the Peten region demonstrate how this extensive salt production was beyond the control of Mayan state leaders.

The Punta Ycacos Lagoon artifacts serve as proof on how salt was made and transported in ancient Maya. They have also provided an insight on the economy of pre-Industrial societies.

Source: Finds in Belize document Late Classic Maya salt making and canoe transport by Heather McKillop, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America v.102(15); Published online in 2005


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