Archeologists Discover Ancient Maya Fish Factory in Belize

Archeologists Discover Ancient Maya Fish Factory in Belize

A joint archeological team from Louisiana State University in the United States and Ibaraki University in Japan have discovered that the ancient Maya of Central America had developed large-scale fish factories. By boiling saltwater in huge pots over open fires, the ancient Maya produced vast amounts of salt, which was packed onto canoes and traded throughout the region.

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the joint archeological team discovered evidence that the ancient Maya were using salt production to preserve fish on a grand scale.

Archeologists already knew that coastal Maya towns across Central America were involved in producing salt. But thanks to work by Kazuo Auyama of Ibaraki University, an expert on stone tools, there is no evidence that the ancient Maya were salting and preserving fish on a truly gigantic scale. By studying microscopic scuff marks on stone tools and artifacts found at the Paynes Creek Salt Works in Belize, it was learned that the site was also a productive fish preservation factory.

Due to a shortage of written records, much of the knowledge of the ancient Maya culture is incomplete. Since researchers had not found any animal remains at the Paynes Creek site, it was assumed that it was exclusively used to produce salt. But the microscopic analysis of the tools found at the site showed that the Maya were involved in salting and preserving fish and meat on a large scale.

Professor Heather McKillop of Louisiana State University who headed up the research team was surprised by her team’s discovery. “Previously, we had found almost no fish or animal remains in and around the site, so we assumed that it was exclusively used for salt production. But when we looked more closely at the stone tools found at Paynes Creek, we saw clear evidence that they were being used to prepare meat and fish.”

The Paynes Creek site was formerly on dry land but has become submerged beneath a saltwater lagoon in southern Belize. The site was surrounded by a mangrove forest which transformed into peat after becoming submerged. The lack of oxygen in the peat meant that wooden objects were preserved, including over 4,000 wooden posts that formed the factories where the ancient Maya were producing salt on a factory scale. Prior to the invention of refrigeration, salting meat and fish was the only way to preserve it on a long-term basis.

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