salt shaker

Anyone who sat through a third grade social studies lesson learned that Europe’s search for pepper changed the world. Prince Henry the Navigator, Columbus, and all that. But did you know that salt played an even bigger role in world history?

Unlike pepper, we can’t live without salt. It is as essential to life as water. Our bodies need it to digest food, transmit nerve impulses, and move muscles, including the heart.

When we were hunter-gatherers, the salt we needed came from wild game. (Sometimes wild game got the salt it needed by licking the places where we urinated. The circle of life can be weird.) As mankind settled and our diet changed, we had to find salt from other sources, not only for ourselves, but for the animals we domesticated.

In theory, salt can be found almost everywhere on earth. It fills the oceans, lies in rich veins in rock near the earth’s surface, and crusts the desert beds of long vanished seas. But until the Industrial Revolution, it was often difficult to obtain.*

The law of supply and demand is almost as dependable as the law of gravity. Because salt was hard to come by, it was valuable. It was one of the first international commodities and the first government monopoly.** Merchant caravans carried it across the most inhospitable places of the earth. Governments taxed it. Roman soldiers were paid in it.*** Mohandas Gandhi staged a protest around it.

The next time you pick up the salt shaker, show a little respect.

* The phrase “back to the salt mines” is rooted in that fact that mining salt was dangerous work, historically done by slaves or prisoners. As late as the mid- 20th century, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used labor in the slave mines as punishment.

** China, ca 221 BCE.

***Hence the phrase “worth your salt”. Not to mention the word “salary”, which comes from the Latin word for salt.

Image courtesy of Carlos Porto at

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