Salinas de los Nueve Cerros ("Saltworks of the Nine Hills") is a Precolumbian Maya site located at the highland-lowland transition in western Guatemala. The site was centered around the massive Cerro Tortugas (Turtle Hill), a salt dome standing nearly 200 meters tall and covering an expanse of over 3 km2 at its base. Residents of Nueve Cerros took advantage of a highly saline stream that flowed out of the western slope of the dome, producing as much as 24,000 tons of salt a year (Dillon et al. 1988), which was bought or traded with residents of disparate Maya cities.
Two other natural features defined the layout of the city--the Nueve Cerros sierra, a 10-km string of steep karst hills and ridges, formed the western border of the site and a principal focus for ritual activity for its residents. The Chixoy River, which skirted the northern edge of the city, was one of the principal trade arteries connecting the highland and lowland Maya, and provided not only traffic and trade coming into the site, but would have carried the salt and other products made by the city's residents to far-flung markets throughout the Maya world.
The site peaked during the Classic period (A.D. 250-850), where it expanded to cover an area of over 25 square kilometers, but there is evidence of a substantial local population as early as 1000 B.C. The salt source would have attracted people to the dome from the beginning of human occupation in the region, so it is likely that we will find evidence of Paleoindian or Archaic salt production as soon as we dig through the 7-10 meters of construction and fill above the original surface level!
The site survived the Classic Maya collapse (A.D. 760-900), with continued construction and salt manufacture lasting until as late as A.D. 1200. Even after it was abandoned, the saltworks continued to be regularly exploited. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the area around Nueve Cerros was controlled by the Akala, a powerful Maya group that exported large quantities of salt and launched a series of attacks on Spanish holdings in the northern highlands (Sapper 1985). Other Maya groups camped near the salt source to produce enough to bring home and trade. The most dramatic example occurred in 1630, when Tovilla (1960) reported a group of 160 Lacondones (which he originally mistook for an army!) who camped out for the better part of a year. The Spaniards eventually took over the area, and the municipality of Coban took control of the salt source, selling rights to salt producers who traveled to the site by mule or canoe to try their luck at producing, transporting, and selling salt throughout the northern highlands and southern lowlands. Salt production continued through the colonial period and Guatemalan independence and is still occasionally undertaken by the local Q’eqchi’ Maya.