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Ancient Maya Used Salt Cakes as Money, New Research Suggests

The ancient Maya made salt by boiling brine in pots over fires in salt kitchens, according to a paper by Louisiana State University’s Professor Heather McKillop.

The first documented record of salt as an ancient Maya commodity at a marketplace is depicted in a mural painted more than 2,500 years ago at Calakmul in Mexico.

In the mural that portrays daily life, a salt vendor shows what appears to be a salt cake wrapped in leaves to another person, who holds a large spoon over a basket, presumably of loose, granular salt.

This is the earliest known record of salt being sold at a marketplace in the Maya region.

“Salt cakes could have been easily transported in canoes along the coast and up rivers in southern Belize,” said Professor McKillop, an archaeologist in the Department of Geography and Anthropology Louisiana State University.

In 2004, Professor McKillop and her colleagues discovered the first remnants of ancient Maya salt kitchen buildings made of pole and thatch that had been submerged and preserved in a saltwater lagoon in a mangrove forest in Belize.

Since then, they have mapped 70 sites that comprise an extensive network of rooms and buildings of the Paynes Creek Salt Works.

“It’s like a blueprint for what happened in the past. They were boiling brine in pots over fires to make salt,” Professor McKillop said.

At the Paynes Creek Salt Works, the archaeologists discovered 4,042 submerged architectural wooden posts, a canoe, an oar, a high-quality jadeite tool, stone tools used to salt fish and meat and hundreds of pieces of pottery.

“I think the ancient Maya who worked here were producer-vendors and they would take the salt by canoe up the river,” Professor McKillop noted.

“They were making large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. This was their living.”

In the study, Professor McKillop examined hundreds of pieces of pottery including 449 rims of ceramic vessels used to make salt.

She discovered that the ceramic jars used to boil the brine were standardized in volume. Thus, the salt producers were making standardized units of salt.

“Produced as homogeneous units, salt may have been used as money in exchanges,” Professor McKillop said.

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