Let’s take a step back and ask, ‘Why El Salvador’? Why was it one of the birth places of Mayan civilization? To answer this, one needs to look at the geography and natural resources: access to water for food and for trade routes, access to mountains to provide varied agricultural zones that allow for hybridization of potential crops, and access to salt that makes a varied diet (not just meat and fish) more acceptable.
El Salvador’s access to the Pacific Ocean allowed very early peoples to have access to fish and other ocean products. The Lempa River is the largest river system along the Central American Pacific coast and allowed easy access inland via canoes.
In the western half of the country, El Salvador’s coast rises quickly from the ocean to the coastal volcanic range. This allowed the early Mayans to live off of the ocean at the same time that they were experimenting with various agricultural products like corn, beans, and squash, which grow better at higher elevations. There are only a few other places in Mesoamerica with the close proximity of mountains to coast, one of which is the Olmec area along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The Tuxtla range rises quickly from the Gulf Coast near the Olmec site of Tres Zapotes.
Another key to early development was access to salt and clay. Salt was necessary as the diet transitioned from primarily meat to primarily grains. Salt was one of the most valued early trade products. Clay was necessary to begin to form pots and other food-related products, as the diet was diversifying. Both of these were available in large quantities in Usulután in east-central El Salvador.
One of the advantages to Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and northern Central America) over many other areas is access to two oceans. The two places with the narrowest trans-ocean journey in Mesoamerica are the Tehuantepec Isthmus in southern Mexico and the line from western El Salvador north to the Guatemala-Honduras border along the Atlantic. Is it a coincidence that the Olmec civilization lies at the Atlantic terminal of the Tehuantepec Isthmus and that the earliest Mayan civilization lies at the Pacific terminal of the Lempa to Motagua route?
From the Lempa River, a canoe could get one to the area of Ocotepeque in southeast Honduras. From there it is about 40 miles overland to the Copán River which flows into the Motagua River, giving access to the Atlantic Ocean. Anthropologists have determined that the first settlers of the present site of Copán arrived in 2000 BC, most likely from the Pacific Coast. This would indicate that by that date, the early Mayans of El Salvador had discovered the important Lempa-Copán-Motagua route from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
First posted, Dec. 6 on BlogBox