Salt may have been a valuable commodity for the Mayans, say scientists who found that the ancient civilisation produced, stored and traded the mineral over 1,000 years ago.
Stone tools found at a site called the Paynes Creek Salt Works in Belize shows that not only were the Maya making salt in large quantities, but they were salting fish and meat to meet dietary needs and producing a commodity that could be stored and traded.
As ancient civilisations evolved from hunters and gatherers to agrarian societies, it has not been clear how people acquired salt that is a biological necessity.
"Since we found virtually no fish or other animal bones during our sea-floor survey or excavations, I was 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," said Heather McKillop, a professor at Louisiana State University in the US.
The study site is a three-square-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," said McKillop, lead author of the stdy published in the journal PNAS.
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, researchers mapped and excavated the underwater sites.
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 Classic Maya from 300-900 A.D. may have travelled by boat along the coast and up rivers to cities 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," McKillop said.
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