Examples of salt in its natural and processed states

Worth its Weight in Salt

Access to salt is largely taken for granted today, yet in prehistoric and historical times it was a highly valued commodity, referred to by some as “white gold” (Kurlansky, 2003). It has many uses and is essential to all living things.

Dietary changes, thought to have arisen during the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture in the Neolithic period are believed to have prompted prehistoric people to artificially supplement salt in their diet, thereby creating demand for this new commodity (Casal, 1958; Gouletquer, 1974; Fawn et al., 1990). Dietary changes at this time included cooking (especially boiling) meat and vegetables and consuming salt deficient cereals.

The flavour-enhancing ability of salt is probably its best recognised quality today, and it is likely that this also played an important role in its addition to food from the Neolithic onwards (Gouletquer, 1974). Population expansion during the Neolithic may have prompted the development of salt harvesting technologies in order to meet greater demands for this mineral, which could no longer be adequately met from natural deposits alone.

Salt became a highly valued commodity from the Bronze Age, if not earlier, as its uses expanded to food preservation, leather tanning, cloth dyeing and medicine (Kurlansky, 2003). Early rulers were quick to see its economic and political value, and taxes were levied on salt as a means of maintaining control of its production and distribution. Haun K’uan’s “Discourse on Salt and Iron”, written in c. 80 BC, identifies taxation of salt by Chinese leaders, which continued until the early 20th Century (Tora and Vogel, 1993). The Romans were also quick to take control of the salt industry via taxation and state ownership during their political campaigns across Europe (Shotter, 2005). In addition to providing a source of revenue from taxation and leasing salterns, it was also an important resource for the Roman army (Shotter, 2005). This is due to their use of salt for tanning leather for uniforms and tents, food preservation, and the payment of soldiers (hence the term “salary”) (Kurlansky, 2003).

Advances in technology and salt processing techniques in the 18th and 19th Centuries have greatly increased salt production, whilst doing so at a reduced cost. Although salt still forms an essential and ubiquitous role in our daily lives (e.g. in the food we eat, and the manufacturing processes such as tanning and dyeing used to produce the clothes we wear), it is no longer such an expensive or exclusive commodity. It does however continue to generate large amounts of money for those involved in its production.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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