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The History of Salt

While it may seem humble in modern times, salt has shaped history. There are varied sources of salt, including dried-up seas, salt licks, salt veins deep in the Earth. However, it has always been a precious commodity. In ancient times, animals wore paths to salt licks. Humans followed and roads and then settlements sprung up around the salt sources. As civilization expanded, salt became a key trading commodity and salt routes were established to transport the precious mineral. One of the most traveled led from Morocco, crossed the Sahara, and ended in Timbuktu. Another highly trafficked route was the Roman Via Salaria, meaning the "salt route," which transported salt crystals from the salt pans at Ostia. The salt trade also made many nations wealthy — for example, Venice amassed huge amounts of wealth from trading their salt for the spices of Asia. Salt was so precious that it was even used as currency — as early as the 6th century, Moorish merchants in sub-Saharan Africa routinely traded salt ounce for ounce for gold, and for a time in Abyssinia, slabs of rock salt functioned as the coin of the realm. Salt was so highly valued not only because it imparted flavor, but it was also used to preserve food and made a good antiseptic. In fact, the Roman word for salt (“sal”) is related to the name of the Roman goddess of health, Salus. What’s more, a Roman soldier’s pay was partially doled out in salt and was known as “solarium argentum” — which in turn is the root of our word “salary” today. The phrase “not worth his salt” also comes from the Greco-Roman era when both cultures would purchase slaves using salt. Salt is also important in some religions, including both Judaism and Christianity. In the Middle Ages, salt became a source of superstition. In the 18th century, the rank of guests at a fancy dinner was determined by where they were seated in relation to the salt on the table — the host and important guests sat “above the salt” while those that the host deemed less distinguished would be seated “below the salt.” But more importantly than social conventions or superstitions, salt taxes often shaped the fate of governments by helping to solidify or weaken their power. As recently as 1930, Mahatma Gandhi famously led a mass pilgrimage to the seaside so the group could make their own salt in protest of the high British tax on salt in India. Today, most of us think of salt simply as a seasoning, but it continues to be a key commodity even in the modern world.

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