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Salt in Ancient Mesoamerica

Salt Production and Consumption in Ancient Mesoamerica

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Salt deposit at the site of Herve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Salt deposit at the site of Herve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Carsten

As in many other parts of the world, in Ancient Mesoamerica salt was an important good, known for thousand of years before the Spanish arrived. It was used not just as condiment but as food preservative, mordant for textile dyes as well as cleansing material. Typical salt sources used in Mesoamerica included seawater, salt springs, salt mines, and salty soils around saline lakes in inland areas.

The earliest use of salt is documented in the Formative period, when the Olmec engaged in salt harvesting and exchange along the Gulf Coast, and later reached the Pacific coast of Mexico and Guatemala.

Salt Among the Ancient Maya

Beginning in the Late Formative, the ancient Maya extracted salt from the north coast of Yucatan through seawater evaporation and exported it all over the lowlands. Recent studies have shown that other areas, such as the Highlands of Guatemala, the coast of Belize and the Pacific coast of Mexico and Guatemala, were also involved in salt production at a smaller scale.

Salt Among the Postclassic Aztecs and Tarascans

Around 1100 AD in the Valley of Mexico traditional salt extraction techniques changed from evaporation of  saline lakeshore soils to boiling salty spring water. In this region, one of the most productive areas for salt-making was the shoreline of Lake Texcoco, where archaeologists identified evidence of salt craft specialists at the household level at the site of Xocotitlan. During the Postclassic period, salt was a precious item acquired by the Aztec empire through tribute and market exchange. In the Tarascan kingdom of Michoacan as well, salt was an important good, traded  into their capital Tzintzuntzan through market and tribute.

Since salt is not visible any more in the archaeological record, archaeologists usually look for elements associated with its production, storage and distribution along with documentary sources about salt-making techniques.  

Salt Production Methods

Salt was produced mainly through two techniques: evaporation of seawater, called sal solar (solar salt) and boiling of concentrated brine, sal cocida (boiled/cooked salt).

The sal solar method consisted in collecting salt from salt beds and let it evaporate on the sun within shallow plates. The second method, called sal cocida, consisted in boiling brine in large jars over fire in order to produce loose salt or salt cakes. Sometimes the two methods were combined.

Evidence for salt-making usually comes from production equipment, such as pottery containers, vessels supports, and fire traces. Archaeologists suggest that salt workshops existed near the raw material areas.

 Debates about the pros and cons of the two methods and the possible main production areas oscillate between the distribution costs of the evaporation method versus the production cost of the boiling method.

Salt Distribution

Salt distribution methods included both long-distance trade from Northern Yucatan and Belize through canoes from the coast to the interior, as well as local distribution from inland areas through river navigation.

A further area of debate among specialists involves the degree of control by Mesoamerican elites over salt production and distribution.

Salt Production Sites

Several salt production sites have been located so far in different regions of Mesoamerica:

  • El Salado (Veracruz, Mexico)
  • Xocotitlan (Basin of Mexico)
  • Nexquipayac (Mexico)
  • Salinas de los Nueves Cerros (Guatemala)
  • Wild Cane Cay (Belize)
  • Emal (Yucatan, Mexico)
  • Hierve el Agua (Oaxaca, Mexico)
  • Cuyutlan (Colima, Mexico)
  • Tecomate (Guerrero, Mexico)
  • Mezcalitlan (Nayarit, Mexico)
  • X'Cambo (Yucatan, Mexico)

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Ancinet Mesoamerica, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Andrews, Anthony, 1983, Maya Salt Production and Trade, University of Arizona Press, Tucson

De Leon, Jason P., 2010, Salt Production and Trade in Ancient Mesoamerica, in Pre-Columbian Foodways, edited by John Edward Staller and Michael Carrasco, Springer, New York

McKillop Heather, 2002, Salt. White Gold of the Ancient Maya, University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Parsons, Jeffrey R., 2001, Salt. in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, vol. 3, edited by David Carrasco, Oxford University Press.

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