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original article LSU.edu

The earliest known record of salt being sold in a marketplace in the Maya region depicted in a mural at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Photo Credit: Rogelio Valencia, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul

Researchers at LSU uncover more on the ancient Maya commodity

03/22/2021

BATON ROUGE – The first documented record of salt as an ancient Maya commodity at a marketplace is depicted in a mural painted more than 1,000 years ago at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula 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 is a basic biological necessity and is also useful for preserving food. Salt also was valued in the Maya area because of its restricted distribution.

Salt cakes could have been easily transported in canoes along the coast and up rivers in southern Belize, writes LSU archaeologist Heather McKillop in a new paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. She discovered in 2004 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, she and her team of LSU graduate and undergraduate students and colleagues 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,” McKillop said. “They were boiling brine in pots over fires to make salt.”

Her research team has discovered at the Paynes Creek Salt Works, 4,042 submerged architectural wooden posts, a canoe, an oar, a high-quality jadeite toolstone 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. They were making large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. 

This was their living,” said McKillop, who is the Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology. 

She investigated hundreds of pieces of pottery including 449 rims of ceramic vessels used to make salt. Two of her graduate students were able to replicate the pottery on a 3D printer in McKillop’s Digital Imaging Visualization in Archaeology lab at LSU based on scans taken in Belize at the study site. 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,” McKillop said.

An ethnographic interview with a modern day salt producer in Sacapulas, Guatemala collected in 1981 supports the idea that the ancient Maya also may have viewed salt as a valuable commodity: 

“The kitchen is a bank with money for us…So when we need money at any time during the year we come to the kitchen and make money, salt.”

Additional Link:

Salt as a commodity or money in the Classic Maya economy, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278416521000106?dgcid=author

Contact Alison Satake
LSU Media Relations
c. 510-816-8161
asatake@lsu.edu

A pot 3D printed in the LSU Digital Imaging & Visualization in Archeology Lab by archeology students based on scans collected at the ancient Maya salt works field site.Photo Credit: LSU

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By Associated PressMEXICO CITY —

Latimes.com

The number of mammoth skeletons recovered at an airport construction site north of Mexico City has risen to at least 200, with a large number still to be excavated, experts said Thursday. 

Archeologists hope the site that has become “mammoth central” — the shores of an ancient lake bed that both attracted and trapped mammoths in its marshy soil — may help solve the riddle of their extinction. 

Experts said that finds are still being made at the site, including signs that humans may have made tools from the bones of the lumbering animals that died somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. 

There are so many mammoths at the site of the new Santa Lucia airport that observers have to accompany each bulldozer that digs into the soil to make sure work is halted when mammoth bones are uncovered. 

“We have about 200 mammoths, about 25 camels, five horses,” said archeologist Rubén Manzanilla López of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, referring to animals that went extinct in the Americas. 

The site is only about 12 miles from artificial pits, essentially shallow mammoth traps, that were dug by early inhabitants to trap and kill dozens of mammoths. 

Manzanilla López said evidence is beginning to emerge suggesting that even if the mammoths at the airport died natural deaths after becoming stuck in the mud of the ancient lake bed, their remains may have been carved up by humans. Something similar happened at the mammoth-trap site in the hamlet of San Antonio Xahuento, in the nearby township of Tultepec.

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While tests are still being carried out on the mammoth bones to try to find possible butchering marks, archeologists have found dozens of mammoth-bone tools — usually shafts used to hold other tools or cutting implements — like ones in Tultepec.

“Here we have found evidence that we have the same kind of tools, but until we can do the laboratory studies to see marks of these tools or possible tools, we can’t say we have evidence that is well-founded,” Manzanilla López said.

Paleontologist Joaquin Arroyo Cabrales said the airport site “will be a very important site to test hypotheses” about the mass extinction of mammoths.

 

“What caused these animals’ extinction, everywhere there is a debate, whether it was climate change or the presence of humans,” Arroyo Cabrales said. “I think in the end the decision will be that there was a synergy effect between climate change and human presence.”

Ashley Leger, a paleontologist at the California-based Cogstone Resource Management company, who was not involved in the dig, noted that such natural death groupings “are rare. A very specific set of conditions that allow for a collection of remains in an area but also be preserved as fossils must be met. There needs to be a means for them to be buried rapidly and experience low oxygen levels.”

The site near Mexico City now appears to have outstripped the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs, S.D. — which has about 61 sets of remains — as the world’s largest find of mammoth bones. Large concentrations have also been found in Siberia and at Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits.

For now, the mammoths seem to be everywhere at the site and the finds may slow down, but not stop, work on the new airport.

 

Mexican Army Capt. Jesus Cantoral, who oversees efforts to preserve remains at the army-led construction site, said “a large number of excavation sites” are still pending detailed study, and that observers have to accompany backhoes and bulldozers every time they break ground at a new spot.

The airport project is so huge, he noted, that the machines can just go work somewhere else while archeologists study a specific area.

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Archaeology.org


The 2012 holiday season
brought news of several exciting finds from across Europe that make up a veritable cocktail party—including wine, beer, and cheese—of archaeological evidence.

In a 2,000-year-old, 100-foot-deep well at the site of Cetamura del Chianti in Tuscany, Italy, archaeologists from Florida State University found 153 grape seeds. The pips date to the period shortly after the Romans claimed the site from the Etruscans. The researchers have identified the grapes as Vitis vinifera, or the wine grape. Because the seeds were not burned, they might carry preserved DNA that could offer insight into the beginnings of viticulture in the region now famous for its bold, fruity reds. “People are going to be interested in the variety of grapes we might be able to identify,” says archaeologist Nancy Thomson de Grummond.

Meanwhile, in western Cyprus, a domed, mud-plaster structure found at the site of Kissonerga-Skalia appears to have been used as a Bronze Age kiln to dry malt for brewing beer. Archaeologist Lindy Crewe of the University of Manchester in England and her team excavated the nearly 4,000-year-old oven, uncovering ashy deposits containing carbonized fig seeds, mortars and other grinding implements, and juglets. They also found sherds of a large clay pot that they believe was a pithos, a vessel in which a fire was lit and used as an indirect heat source within the kiln. Malt, the team hypothesizes, might have been stored in the juglets while they were in the kiln, and then removed to perform the rest of the brewing process.

Finally, new data indicate that sherds from vessels used as sieves, dating back to the sixth millennium B.C. in Poland, have residue of dairy fats on them, suggesting they were used in the earliest known instance of cheese-making. Researchers at the University of Bristol confirmed what Princeton archaeologist Peter Bogucki had suspected for 30 years—that Neolithic farmers in Europe whose settlements were dominated by remains of cattle were dependent on those animals for more than meat.

Taken together, the finds, spanning thousands of years and distant locations, suggest that tastes may not have changed all that much over the millennia.

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