Friday, April 08, 2005


Salt Central to Ancient Maya Business


Discovery News
By Jennifer Viegas
April 05, 2005

The ancient paddle.

Excavations of a number of saltworks suggests that the ancient Maya business world centered on salt and was much more extensive than archaeologists though.

The remains of forty-one saltworks and one wooden canoe paddle, all dating from 600-900 A.D., were excavated recently, according to a paper in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The canoe paddle represents the only known Maya artifact of its kind from that time. Researchers believe an extensive salt-making industry existed on the south coast of Belize, where the paddle and factory remains were found. The paddle suggests workers transported the salt via canoe.

Maya civilization dominated much of what are now Mexico, Belize and Guatemala from the 3rd century A.D. to the 1600s, when Spanish explorers arrived and led to the dismantling of the empire and much of its trade. Prior to the recent discoveries, historians thought most early Maya business was associated with the royal courts in interior cities, or household cottage industries that mass-produced goods, such as stone tools.

"In general, the subsistence economy of the Late Classic Maya was more complex than previously considered and included mass production of goods outside of urban areas and beyond state control," wrote Heather McKillop in the PNAS paper.

McKillop, a professor of archaeology in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University, told Discovery News that she found three salt works at Punta Ycacos Lagoon on the south coast of Belize in 2002.

She recently returned to the site and discovered the 41 additional salt works, along with the canoe paddle. All were located in mangrove peat deposits that helped to preserve the wood.

Each salt factory was identified by related equipment, such as salt-making pots, jars, bowls, solid clay cylinders that were used to hold the vessels over fires, and evidence for large fire charcoal hearths.

McKillop said workers boiled seawater to produce loose salt or salt cakes. The pottery was marked with stamps that matched pottery from the inland areas, indicating the salt works were linked to the main Maya cities.

Remains of wooden buildings were identified at 23 of the 41 coastal sites. The largest structure measures approximately 69 by 39 feet. Interior posts suggest the building housed numerous rooms. McKillop thinks it may have served as a sort of warehouse, where salt could have been stored before workers loaded it onto canoes.

The excavated paddle was made of wood from Manilkara sapote, the same tree species that provides chicle for chewing gum. The paddle, which was radiocarbon dated to 680-880 A.D., has a smooth, round grip and a blade that flares at a 90-degree angle to the shaft.

Although it represents the first known artifact of its kind, the paddle resembles those depicted on a mural at Chichen Itza and on incised temple burial bones from Tikal.

Items from Pagan Worship?

Busy Business
Ancient coastal canoe paddlers, who brought salt to the interior of what is now Belize and Guatemala, must have been busy. McKillop said that from 600-900 A.D., interior Maya cities swelled to the tens of thousands, with large cities like Caracol and Tikal reaching populations of 100,000 or more.

In a hot climate before refrigeration, everyone needed salt to preserve meat, to dry fish, and to supplement their diets.

"Salt can be obtained by eating meat, but the ancient diet focused on corn and other plant foods, with limited amounts of wild game meat such as peccary (wild pig), deer and domestic dog," she said.

"Salt can be obtained by burning palm trees, but the native palms were also used for thatching buildings, and the edible nuts were eaten in ancient times, so it is unlikely large numbers of useful trees were burned for salt. The coast remains the source of most salt."

McKillop added that salt could be obtained from inland salt springs either by boiling or solar evaporation, but that these springs were scarce.

She said the entrepreneurial coastal workers accumulated wealth in the form of trade goods, such as obsidian and cacao (chocolate) beans. Based on other objects found at the site, the workers also ran side businesses collecting stingray spines for use in ritual bloodletting, conch shells that were made into horns, and edible seafood, such as fish, manatees and sea turtles.

Elizabeth Graham, who in the 1970s was the first to identify salt production in Belize, told Discovery News that the new finds were "phenomenal."

"Salt production took off in the Late Classic (550-600 to about 800 A.D.), which is the period that most people associate with an increase in monumental architecture, dynastic squabbles, and lots of stelae being carved and erected," said Graham, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology in London.

"So when the politics were getting hot, so to speak, this is when coastal people (coasts and cayes) were falling all over themselves processing salt and shipping it inland along the coast."

Graham added that the Maya economy at the time "was very modern, in the sense that people responded to demands in the way we do today."


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