Salt: Geology & Sources for the Classic Maya

Humans need salt as do most animals. Salt for humans is not only a needed material for our bodies, but also you can salt fish and then trade the salted fish far away from the ocean (or river or lake). You can also smoke meat, but salted fish is more common among the ancient Maya.

LiDAR suggests there were “millions of Maya” so how did MILLIONS of people get salt on their table! This question has led to lots of theses and PhD dissertations, articles and even monographs on salt.

Yet when we think about “Classic Maya civilization” we think jade, obsidian, chert (flint), and limestone. Yet salt was not only important, millions of kilos of this material would have been needed throughout the Mayan areas (as well as all of Mesoamerica). So where can salt be obtained? How is it processed from the ocean or from the ground? How is it traded to inland cities that have no salt resources near them? So lots of studies have been initiated, but primarily in Belize and Mexico. For Guatemala the information is either in past years or only for one area (Salinas de los Nueve Cerros) is one such source that has been studied.

Last week, while doing field work for a EU development agency that had asked our help, I noticed black salt being sold in every roadside stall near the entrance to the town of Sacapulus, Quiche, Guatemala. I had stopped to look at the handwoven baskets, petates, and other cesteria. But when I saw the black salt I bought one large bag of the salt “stones” and about 10 packages of the powdered black salt.

From past research and field trip visits to salt sources inland from the Pacific Ocean, in the area near Monterrico, I had read about black salt from Sacapulas. But all my field work in Sacapulas in recent years has been to find-and-photograph flor de mayo in this area (this is a cactus area, dry, like along Rio Motagua but here in the mountains of Sacapulas there is pine scattered among the hilly savanna-like areas).

Seeing all this native, Maya-produced black salt inspired me to create the following bibliography. Later when Vivian Hurtado has returned from another of our field trips, together we will publish a more complete salt bibliography as a FLAAR report.

Main salt sources for the Maya of Guatemala produced black salt

White salt is also available from various sources, especially sea salt. But in the Maya Highlands, most (but not all) the salt is black.

Sea salt is obviously available all along the Caribbean Coast and the Pacific Ocean coast of Guatemala (and adjacent Mexico to the north). Salt sources along coastal Belize are studied by many archaeologists and geologists but inland salt sources in the Sacapulas area of Highland Maya area of Guatemala were studied mainly in the 1960’s.

Most field work on salt production is throughout coastal areas of Belize. For Guatemala, mostly for Salinas de los Nueve Cerros (but mostly archaeology rather than pure geology and salt-making processes). Salt is well known for the Maya Highlands (Sacapulas and San Mateo Ixtatán) but not enough research has been initiated for other salt sources of Guatemala. Salt is of course known from the Pacific Ocean coast but lots more research could still be accomplished. We (FLAAR in USA and FLAAR Mesoamerica in Guatemala) are preparing a bibliography and list of suggested reading for salt of the Classic Maya civilization. Last week, while driving through the dry cactus-and-pine area of the mountains of Sacapulas area of El Quiche, we noticed black salt being sold in all the roadside stalls. So we brought some back to photograph it and provide suggestions for students of geology, anthropology, or archaeology on where they could accomplish fresh research on salt sources of Guatemala. For example, lots more needs to be studied in Sacapulas in the mountains and the inland brackish lagoons near Monterrico on the Pacific Coast.

Our experience is primarily in Sacapulas, Monterrico and Salinas de los Nueve Cerros. I have not yet visited the other salt area but our upcoming bibliography will cover all areas.

The bibliography below is just a first step.


Bibliography of Maya Salt in General
(so not just on one specific area)

  • ANDREWS, Anthony P.
  • 1978
  • Salt Making, Merchants and Markets: The Role of a Critical Resource in the development of Maya Civilization, PhD dissertation, Dept of Anthropology, University of Arizona.
  • ANDREWS, Anthony P.
  • 1980a
  • The Salt Trade of the Ancient Maya. Archaeology 33(4):24-33.
  • ANDREWS, Anthony P.
  • 1983
  • Maya Salt Production and Trade. University of Arizona Press.
  • LANGE, F. W.
  • 1971
  • Marine Resources, a Viable Subsistence Alternative for the Prehistoric Lowland Maya. American Anthropologist 73: 619-639.
  • McKILLOP, Heather
  • 2002
  • Salt: White Gold of the Ancient Maya. University Press of Florida.
  • ANDREWS, Anthony P. and Shirley B. MOCK
  • 2002
  • New Perspectives on the Prehispanic Salt Trade. Pages 307-314 in Ancient Maya Political Economies, M. A. Masson and D.A. Freidel, editors.

Web pages on black salt
But is locked, so useless to obtain information to cite.


Bibliography of Maya Salt in Sacapulas, Quiche

  • CHOCANO Alfaro, Guillermo Alejandro
  • 2012
  • Investigaciones etnoarqueológicas en la región Tujaal, Sacapulas, Quiché. In XXV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2011 (editado por B. Arroyo, L. Paiz, and H. Mejía), pp. 486- 494. Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, Instituto de Antropología e Historia y Asociación Tikal, Guatemala.
  • REINA, Ruben and John M. MONAGHAN
  • 1961
  • The Ways of the Maya. Salt Production in Sacapulas, Guatemala. Expedition, Spring 1961, pp. 13-33.

    Lots of photo, and at adequate size and acceptable quality (albeit black-and-white). Lots of information. The salt I saw being sold in Sacapulas in November 2021 was in plastic bags, not in panitos. The rocks were gray to black. Thus I estimate that salt extraction and production today is how what it was like half a century ago. All the more reason to encourage a student or a salt project to initiate modern research on black salt of the Maya Highlands.

    Helpful download:

Mentions black salt but no documentation of origins, processing, etc.
Buy black salt mixed with other materials at international commercial prices

One of the better videos; has helpful geological and local information.

viajando por Sacapulas Quiché y conociendo la sal negra.
Only mentions black salt; no pertinent information (most of the video is on the handicrafts sold along the main highway).
Another video only mentions black salt; no pertinent information to help research (most of the video is on the handicrafts sold along the main highway).


Bibliography of Maya Salt in San Mateo Ixtatán, Huehuetenango

Salt in Belize has been researched 1000% more than salt in Huehuetenango or Quiche. Not much available on salt of San Mateo Ixtatán, but here is a starter.

  • 2009
  • Salt, Sites, and "Mythology": Cultural Memory in San Mateo Ixtatán (Huehuetenango, Guatemala) from Pre-Hispanic to Modern Times. Pages 157-188 in: The Maya and their Sacred Narratives: Text and Context of Maya Mythologies, Proceedings of the 12th European Maya Conference, Geneva, December 7-8, 2007, Genviève Le Fort, Raphaël Gardiol, Sebastian Matteo and Christophe Helmke (eds.). Markt Schwaben: Verlag Anton Saurwein.

    Supposedly “academic” download site demands your personal information; this is not appropriate.

Local mythology related to salt sources.
Actors dressed in special clothing dancing to marimba music; nice local ethnographic views but not much salt geology.
Sal Negra en San Mateo Huehuetenango, Cortometraje Malin


Bibliography of Maya Salt in Pacific Coastal area of Guatemala

  • NANCE, C. Roger
  • 1992
  • Guzmán Mound: A Late Preclassic salt works on the south coast of Guatemala Ancient Mesoamerica Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 1992), pp. 27-46 (20 pages).

We have visited the salt working area twice in past years. A thesis or PhD dissertation needs to be done while local people still remember how to do all this. In future years this salt extraction area will no longer be functioning.


Bibliography of Maya Salt in Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

  • DILLON, Brian
  • 1977
  • Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala: Preliminary Investigations. In, Ballena Press Studies in Mesoamerican Art, Archaeology and Ethnohistory 2, Socorro, NM: Ballena Press.
  • DILLON, Brian
  • 1979
  • The Archaeological Ceramics of Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.
  • DILLON, Brian, POPE, Kevin and Michael LOVE
  • 1988
  • An Ancient Extractive Industry: Maya Saltmaking at Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Guatemala. Journal of New World Archaeology 7(2/3):37-58.


Bibliography of Maya Salt in Belize

  • MacKINNON, J. J. and S. M. KEPECS
  • 1989
  • Prehispanic Saltmaking in Belize: New Evidence. American Antiquity 54(3):522-533.
  • McANANY, Patricia and Satoru MURATA (editors)
  • 2008
  • Salt and Pottery Production at Wits Cah Ak’al and Further Excavations of Group A at Hershey: 2007 Field Season of the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
  • McKILLOP, Heather
  • 1987
  • Wild Cane Caye: An Insular Classic Period to Postclassic Period Maya Trading Station. Ph.D. Dissertation Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • McKILLOP, Heather
  • 1995
  • Underwater Archaeology, Salt Production, and Coastal Maya Trade at Stingray Lagoon, Belize. Latin American Antiquity 6(3): 214-228.
  • McKILLOP, Heather
  • 2005
  • Finds in Belize Document Late Classic Maya Salt Making and Canoe Transport. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102(15): 5630-5634.
  • MURATA, Satoru
  • 2011
  • Maya Salters, Maya Potters: The Archaeology of Multicrafting on Non-residential Mounds at Wits Cah Ak'al, Belize. PhD dissertation, Boston University.
  • MURATA, Satoru
  • 2008
  • Wits Cah Ak’al: The First Hybrid Salt/Pottery Production Site in the Maya Lowlands. Paper presented at the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver BC.


Bibliography on pre-Columbian Salt in Mexico (outside Mayan areas)

  • 1946
  • Influencia de la sal en la distribución geográphica de los grupos indíginas de México. In, Obras Completas, 2:181-340, México: D. F.
  • SANTLEY, R. S.
  • 2004
  • Prehistoric Salt Production at El Salado, Vera Cruz, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 15(2):199-221.
  • VALDEZ, F. and Shirley B. MOCK
  • 1991
  • Additional Considerations for Prehispanic Saltmaking in Belize. American Antiquity 56(3): 520-525.
  • 1999
  • The Ethnoarchaeology of Salt Production at Lake Cuitzeo, Michoacan, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 10(4): 400-414.

    The full FLAAR report will have two additional topic areas to add to the present first draft:
    • Bibliography of Maya Salt in Pacific Coastal Area of Mexico: Oaxaca, Chiapas

    • Bibliography of Maya Salt in Caribbean Coastal Are: Tabasco, Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo


First posted December 3, 2021.

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