Maya breakthrough as incredible underwater discovery solves 1,000-year-old mystery

Heather McKillop, along with her research team from LSU, excavated the salt kitchens where brine was boiled in clay pots over fires in pole and thatch buildings. The Maya constructed stone temples and palaces in the rainforest all across Central America and had stunning stone carvings of their royal leaders. But the Maya from these areas lacked access to one of the most basic commodities – salt.

McKillop and her research team uncover underwater discoveries of how Mayan salt workers supplied inland cities with basic food commodities during the Classic Maya civilization.

McKillop and LSU’s Alumna Corey Sells, an associate professor at the University of Texas-Tyler, uncovered the secret with the help of funding from the National Science Foundation.

Although fieldwork at Ek Way Nal, where the Paynes Creek Saltworks is located, has been postponed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, the researchers turned to material previously used for study in the LSU Archaeology lab.

It includes hundreds of wood samples from pole and thatch buildings, as well as pottery sherds.

“I decided to provide a sample of the wood for the radiocarbon dating of each building in Ek Way Nal to see if they were all dated at the same time, which was suggested by seeing the artefacts and buildings on the sea floor,” McKillop said.

A Mayan artefact (Image: LSU)

When the dates started coming in, two at a time, McKillop identified a building construction sequence that began in the Late Classic at the height of Maya civilization and continued through the Terminal Classic when the dynastic leaders of inland city states were losing control and eventually the cities were abandoned by A.D. 900.

According to McKillop, “Using the well-studied site, Sacapulas, Guatemala, as a model, worked well to develop archaeological expectations for different activities for brine boiling in a salt kitchen, a residence and other activities, including salting fish.”

The researchers report a three-part construction sequence with salt kitchens, at least one dwelling, and an outdoor area where fish are salted and dried.

Their radiocarbon dating strategy for each building revealed a clearer chronology of Ek Way Nal, which they are now using for more sites.

McKillop’s discovery gives more substance to her estimation that 10 salt kitchens were simultaneously in production at Pines Creek Salt Works, which she reports in her book “Maya Salt Works.”

She said: “The research underlines the importance of radiocarbon dating of each straw pillar and building in salt mills in order to assess the productive capacity of this food imperative. The research also shows the value of individual mapping of artifacts and posts on the sea floor at underwater sites in order to explain the use of the building.” .


the journal Ancient Mesoamerica