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Look: Underwater Mayan ruins reveal secrets of an ancient salt trade

A hot commodity for an expanding empire.

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Let’s talk about salt.

It’s a staple in our diets, an age-old preservative, and an additive in countless household products.

For some ancient Mayans, salt production was a way of life.

On the shores of modern-day Belize, Mayans worked at extensive settlements dedicated to extracting salt from brine.

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The largest known site of Mayan salt production in Belize, called Ta’ab Nuk Na, is completely submerged in a lagoon.

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

Writing last week in the journal Antiquity, researchers mapped out the settlement and recovered select artifacts that help piece together the lives of Mayan salt producers.

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

Structures at the site date from 600 to 800 AD, at a time when Mayan settlements were growing rapidly and demand for salt was at its highest.

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

Researchers used these flags to mark submerged artifacts and other findings of interest at Ta’ab Nuk Na.

Researchers identified the remains of three salt kitchens and a residential building.

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

Wooden pieces of the buildings were preserved in mangrove peat, allowing them to stay intact for over a thousand years.

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

Figurines such as this model boat were also shored up from the excavation.

The discovery of at least one residential building reveals that Mayan salt workers lived where they labored, enabling them to produce salt year-round.

McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

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Salt water was harvested from the ocean, then boiled in clay vessels to harvest the solid product that could be sold inland or used to preserve freshly caught fish.

“The inland Maya needed salt — a basic biological necessity — which was scarce inland and most was supplied from salt works along the coasts.”

Heather McKillop, study-co author, in a press release.

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Together with eight other known salt kitchens on the southern coast of Belize, the workers at Ta’ab Nuk Na could have produced enough salt for 24,000 people.

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McKillop et al, Antiquity 2022

And the residential component of the site is similar to another salt-producing settlement in Belize that came after Ta’ab Nuk Na was no longer inhabited.

Being a salt producer would have meant a certain amount of dedication to the craft — namely that you would live at work for the sake of powering the empire’s vital trade.

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