Small Mayan saltworks could have supplied thousands, preserved food

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The sharpened end of a building support post from the Payne's Creek salt works. Some of the stone tools used to process fish had also been used for woodworking. (credit: PNAS)

If you stand on the shore of a briny lagoon near the mouth of Belize’s Monkey River, you won’t see many signs that ancient industry once flourished here. Today, all that’s left are dozens of submerged clusters of wooden posts—some now overgrown with mangroves, all long buried in silt—and artifacts like pottery and stone tools. But a thousand years ago, the community now submerged beneath the lagoon’s placid surface may have supplied salt and dried fish to a network of Maya cities.

As airborne laser studies reveal how complex Maya trade networks were hundreds of years ago, microscopic analysis of Maya stone tools suggests that salt cakes and dried fish may have been among the most important goods carried on those trade routes.

Before Etsy, there were Maya marketplaces

A thousand years ago, the people who lived near the lagoon’s shores would have spent the four-month dry season—when water in the lagoon evaporated, leaving behind an especially salty brine—heating brine in clay pots over fires and boiling away the water until a cake of salt was left in the bottom of the pot. Each household here would have maintained its own salt kitchen, and many would have lived adjacent to their work (at least during the dry season) or in the nearby community of Wild Cane Cay.

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