Archeologists from Louisiana State University working at the Paynes Creek area of southern Belize have discoveredthat the site was once home to an enormous saltworks.
Originally on dry land near a mangrove-lined lagoon, the Paynes Creek area was flooded by seawater at some point in the past 1,000 years. The saltwater converted the mangrove forest into a vast, three-square-mile (eight-square-kilometer) peat bog that preserved fragile organic items like wood. Researchers discovered more than 4,000 wooden posts that were used to create the ancient factory where huge fires were lit to boil seawater in order to create salt.
Archeologists had been aware for years that the Paynes Creek area had been used by the ancient Maya to produce big cakes of salt which were then traded further inland. But a microscopic analysis of the tools preserved at the site proved that the ancient Maya were also using the salt to preserve fish and meat, the only way to keep animal products from spoiling prior to the invention of refrigeration.
Initially, the archeological team had been surprised by the lack of fish or animal bones in the area despite knowing that it had been a busy site used by the Mayafor hundreds of years. It was only when they put the 20 some chert stone tools under the microscope that they discovered the answer. The tools showed clear signs of being used to cut and prepare fish and meat, leading to the logical conclusion that the ancient Maya were using the salt to preserve food.
Not only does the new discovery help explain how the ancient Maya fed a population estimated at more than one million people, but it also explains why large caches of conch shells and stingray shells were found far in the Belizean interior, including in burial sites. It is now believed that the coastal salt factory was used to make salt cakes and salted fish and meat in order to trade for corn, chocolate, beans, and other foodstuffs from the interior.
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