Today, remnants of an ancient Central American salt mine rest below the brackish waters of a lagoon, but tools that have resurfaced at the hands of archaeologists are helping to illuminate what life looked like there more than 1,000 years ago and, among other things, how the ancient Mayans’ affinity for salt helped to expand their civilization through the production, storage, and trade of the mineral.
A new study published in PNAS reveals the Paynes Creek Salt Works in Belize was once the site of a salt kitchen used to produce and store the biologically and economically important commodity. At a time when society was shifting from hunters and gathers to agriculturalists, the need to preserve perishable food became crucial to the survival of stationary civilizations, leading to the birth of the salt-producing technique known as briquetage. Used across ancient Rome, Asia, and other civilizations, the technique calls for boiling brine in pots over fires to evaporate water, leaving salt behind. The salt in these pots would then be hardened into salt cakes, which could be used stored, transported to nearby trading hubs, or used to preserve fish and meat.