The ancient Maya are renowned for their highly accurate calendars developed from highly accurate astronomical observations as well as their enormous stone pyramids that still dot the landscape of Belize today. But a recent discovery has revealed how the Maya fed an estimated one million people – with a large-scale salt factory to preserve fish and meat.
A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at Ibaraki University in Japan and Louisiana State University in the United States reveals that the ancient Maya had transformed the Paynes Creek area on the coast of southern Belize into an enormous saltworks. Using more than 40,000 timbers, the ancient Maya built a kind of “factory” where vast quantities of seawater were boiled to produce salt.
According to Heather McKillop, an archeologist at Louisiana State University who co-authored the recent paper, it has been known for years that the ancient Maya used coastal areas to produce salt, which was then traded further inland. What surprised them, however, was that a microscopic analysis of tools found at Paynes Creek showed indisputable signs of being used to prepare fish and meat to be salted and preserved. Prior to the invention of refrigeration in the modern era, salting meat and fish was the only option for long-term preservation of animal foodstuffs.
Starting nearly 3,000 years ago and peaking around the year A.D. 900, the ancient Maya culture dominated all of Central America from Mexico down to El Salvador. Belize was the heartland of this culture with at least 600 known ancient Maya sites. Archeologists estimate that the population of the ancient Maya population in Belize was around one million people, far more than the modern population of just 400,000. The discovery of the salt works at Paynes Creek helps archeologists understand how the Maya fed this burgeoning population.
The Paynes Creek area studied in the recent paper is now underwater just a short distance offshore but was on dry land during the time of the ancient Maya. As water levels rose, the site and surrounding mangrove forest were submerged. The saltwater corroded the mangrove trees to form peat which prevented oxidation and thus preserved wood and other organic materials which would’ve otherwise decayed.
Intrepid travelers interested in exploring ancient Maya cities in Belize should definitely consider staying at Laru Beya, a luxury beach resort in Placencia Belize. Laru Beya is close to popular ancient Maya sites like Nim Li Punit and Lubantuum and just a short distance from Paynes Creek where the recent discovery was made.
Visit www.larubeya.com for more information about Belize.