Salt: A World History
by Mark Kurlansky (2002 Penguin Books)
Salt: A World History is a detailed chronology of the role the salt trade has played in human history. Prior to the 20th century, salt’s role in food preservation made it vital to all commercial trade. The mining and manufacture of sodium chloride has also be essential in gunpowder production, silver mining and more than 100 other industrial processes.
In addition to providing a comprehensive review of global technological refinements in salt mining, extraction and manufacture, this book also provides a detailed history (including recipes) of the dietary habits of pre-industrial societies. This part of the book should be of particular interest to sustainability and holistic health activists seeking out traditional methods of food fermentation and preservation as an alternative to processed food. Owing to a new diet I started six months ago to treat a Clostridium difficile infection (see The Care and Feeding of Intestinal Bacteria), fermenting veggies from my garden has become a core part of my daily routine.
Sodium Deficiency and the Rise of Salt Mining
Archeological evidence suggests that plant domestication and the rise of agriculture 10,000 years ago led to a sodium deficiency not present in the diets of hunter gatherer societies. That the agricultural revolution forced our early ancestors seek out surface salt deposits (i.e. salt licks), like other large mammals.
The earliest known salt works are found in Chinese archeological sites dating back to 6,000 BC. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, the Chinese used salt to ferment (pickle) fish, soybeans and other vegetables. The ancient Egyptians were the first to trade preserved foods with other cultures. In the third century BC, they traded salted fish with the Phoenicians for cedar, glass and purple dye from seashells.
Salted fish, olives and other vegetables were also a mainstay of early Greek and Roman diets. After the Romans conquered the Celts in northern Europe, they also adopted the Celtic practice of using salt to preserve ham and other meat. Archeologists have discovered elaborate Celtic salt mines in northern Germany dating from the Roman conquest.
The Basques*, the first to develop commercial whaling (670 AD), also manufactured salt to preserve whale meat. After discovering massive schools of cod in the North Atlantic, Vikings from Scandinavia settled the Ardour River just north of the Basque provinces. For the next few centuries, the Basques salted this cod and dominated the cod trade with the rest of Europe.
Control of the salt and codfish trade would trigger numerous European wars over the next few centuries – with England gaining exclusive control of the Newfoundland fishing grounds in 1759.
Salt in the New World
The history of the Americas is also one of constant warfare over salt. The Aztecs controlled their salt routes through military conquest and exacted a salt tribute from their subjects. The arrival of the Spanish in South and Central America significantly increased demand for salt. The Spanish conquistadors required salt to raise beef and dairy cattle, as well as for tanning hides and separating metallic silver from silver ore.
Control of the salt trade and salt taxes also figure prominently in the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution and Ghandi’s movement to end British rule in India.
The Decline of the Salt Trade
Thanks to the advent of industrial scale canning, refrigeration and fast freezing technology, the salt trade lost its global importance in the early 20th century. Fermented foods still play an important role in many Asian and a few European cultures – both for health reasons and for their importance to cultural identity.
*The Basque people are an indigenous, non Indo-European people who currently inhabit a region in the Pyrenees straddling France and Spain. DNA evidence suggests they have inhabited the area for roughly 7,000 years.