Pass the Maya salt, please

A visit to the Ambergris Museum will give you a cursory look at the daily lives of the ancient inhabitants of our beautiful caye. Unfortunately much of what was acquired or produced by the former dwellers here has not survived the ravages of time. We can only speculate about the daily lives of the Maya who resided here so many centuries ago by examination of those objects of a non perishable nature; ceramics, bone, glass, shell, etc. Much of the untold story has disappeared. Gone forever are the textiles, food materials, carved wood, basketry, furs, feathers and things we probably haven't imagined.

Certainly one of the most important commodities that will never be found in an archeological context is something the entire Maya world depended upon ... salt. Without salt humans cannot survive. It is just that simple; no salt, you die. Ordinarily human populations that do not have access to a direct supply of salt can derive sufficient supplies of salt from the consumption of animals, domesticated or otherwise. In the case of the ancient Maya, however, there was a problem created by the fact that there were no domesticated animals (unless you count the turkey and the dog) in sufficient quantity to satisfy the needs of large populations. And in spite of all those Tarzan movies, there are very few animals to be had in the rain forest. The Maya residents in the highlands were especially dependent upon salt imports for their very existence.

The primary salt resource a thousand years ago was the huge salt lagoons of the northern Yucatan peninsular. Not much has changed, by the way. Most of the salt consumed by the residents of San Pedro comes from the very same "salinas" exploited by the ancient Maya. There were undoubtedly a few Mom and Pop salt production operations along the coast of Belize, but nothing on the scale of the massive mining of sea salt conducted for many centuries by the enterprising merchants of northern Mexico. The trick was simple. You 'dam up the mouth of a lagoon connected to the sea and allow the sun to evaporate the water. The remaining salt can then be shoveled up, bagged and sent south to the salt-less denizens of the Maya highlands. Of course other things went along with the salt shipments; dried fish, pottery, sea shells and so on. In return the canoes coming back to the Yucatan would bear loads of firs, feathers, jade, obsidian, textiles and a variety of forest products.

Of particular interest is the sheer magnitude of the salt trade. If archeologist's estimates of the ancient Maya population are anywhere near correct we can assume the highlands of Guatemala and Mexico harbored somewhere around two million people in 700 A.D. Modem medical studies suggest that humans require somewhere between one half to four grams of salt per day. In actuality we routinely consume more than eight grams per day and anthropologists report that modem Maya populations likewise ingest around eight grams per day. Discounting the use of salt as a preservative you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that a whole lot of canoes are going to be involved in the salt trade. How many? Well, if we assume that a single canoe can transport around five hundred pounds of salt we are talking about somewhere around 3000 canoes per day just to accommodate the demand for salt. Never mind the other goods, we are speaking strictly in terms of salt ... about 30 tons per day.

Ambergris Caye was a linchpin in the maritime trade system. The Maya even went so far as to cut a canal through the mangrove at the northern tip of what we now think of as an island in order to cut about sixty miles off the trip from northern Yucatan into Chetumal Bay. Without the Maya canal we would be an extension of the Xcalac peninsula.

Archeologists working at San Juan, near the international border, have determined that this ancient Maya site functioned as a transshipment point, rather like a seaport. Large ocean-going canoes from the Yucatan would come through the canal (Bacalar Chico) and off-load their cargo at San Juan onto smaller canoes that could negotiate the shallow waters of the upper reaches of the inland river systems. Warehouse facilities and boat ramps were excavated at San Juan and some of the artifacts recovered at this ancient seaport are on display at the Ambergris Museum. Go see 'em!!!

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