SALT is also the acronym for Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which is an interesting point of coincidence and conversation, given that gunpowder is saltpeter (potassium chloride) mixed with sulfur and carbon.
Though we don’t think of salt as a strategic or explosive commodity today, the history of salt includes considerable conflict. Control of saltworks was often key to the thriving, or survival, of a civilization. Early villages, and later, cities, were purposely located near salt works because, prior to refrigeration, salt figured prominently in many forms of food preservation.
Humans first produced salt by either mining dry lake beds or evaporating salt water by fire or sun. There is evidence that the first wars over salt took place in China around Lake Yuncheng. Chinese legend tells of battles continuing over at least a thousand years over control of the Lake’s salt. There is an abundance of human bones around the Lake, with marks in the bones and skulls indicating battle wounds.
Lake Yuncheng may have been the first salt source developed by organized human culture, perhaps as much as 10,000 years ago, prior to human understanding that salt could be obtained by evaporation, or, later, by mining rock salt. Chinese history is full of conflicts regarding control of salt for the making of soy sauce and pickling. The Qin Dynasty, some 3,000 years ago had a salt tax that led to rebellions, and the Han Dynasty of more recent times had a monopoly on salt and iron that caused numerous uprisings.
The Roman Empire had over 60 saltworks as the Roman soldiers conquered the Mediterranean. Salt was critical to the feeding of soldiers and maintenance of horses. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt, which is the origin of the word salary, as well as a person being “worth their salt.”
Roman society was divided between the rich, the patricians, and the working folks, the plebeians. For the plebeians, a standard meal consisted of olives, bread, wine and salt. Because fish were the staple of the patrician diet, fish and salt often were found together. The Romans produced garum, which has been called “Roman soy sauce.” Garum is made by placing the various waste parts of the fish — the intestines, tail, and head, together with smaller fish such as smelt and sprats — in a container with a steep brine. The mix is shaken frequently and fermented in the sun, then boiled. The resulting condensate is garum, and was used for everything from flavoring to healing. Bottled garum was mixed with herbs and sold as a digestive elixer. After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, garum disappeared from the Mediterranean region, falling from favor, and use, as an example of patrician excess.
In Medieval times, brine wells were common fixtures on feudal estates, and were pumped by peasants or prisoners who “walked the salt wheel.” The salt wheel measured about 20 feet in diameter and was turned by two peasants, chained at the neck, walking on treads that turned a rope that elevated the brine buckets. Control of the brine wells by cities marked the transition in much of Europe from feudal estates to city states.
It is hard to imagine these days — when salt is largely taken for granted, being readily available and relatively inexpensive — that there have been times when salt, the only rock humans eat, was such a strategic substance. ❖