Perspective: Salt

Liam Cole Young

Salt’s Hidden Histories
Liam Cole Young is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he teaches and writes about media-technology and culture. He is the author of List Cultures: Knowledge and Poetics from Mesopotamia to BuzzFeed. His favourite salt is Halen Môn from Wales.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe the intersections between culture, economics, and technology.
  • Explain how human cultures ascribe symbolic meaning to foods that transcend flavour or nutrition.
  • Build links between the histories of food production, distribution, and consumption and aspects of contemporary food cultures and supply chains.


Salt is so ever-present in our lives as to be banal, so woven into the fabric of our culinary and gustatorial lives that we hardly notice it. Every pantry or spice collection, in every corner of the world, has some form of salt. It is one of the five modalities of taste, along with sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and umami. Salting is the oldest and most popular technique of food preservation. For thousands of years, humans have used it to extend the life of meats, fish, and vegetables, but also of dairy, in the making of cheese and butter. In this way, salt has been an important mediator of nutrients and protein, allowing humans to nourish themselves during periods of climate unpredictability, famine, or war. Some argue our appetite for salt is hard wired. Our neural networks require sodium, but our bodies do not produce it; sodium chloride, the chemical name for common salt, offers a cheap and abundant way for our cells to metabolize precious sodium ions.

This list of common and consequential uses of salt could go on and on. Almost every civilization from which we still have material traces has gathered, traded, and used it for a variety of purposes, making salt a central player in the emergence and history of what we call “human culture.” Its ubiquity across cultural traditions and historical time makes salt fun to think about but also difficult to study. All we can hope to do is scratch the surface. In this chapter, I tackle this challenge by exploring a few episodes from salt’s many histories, using three lenses: taste, trade, and technology.


To think about taste is inevitably to think about culture. It raises questions such as: how is salt used and enjoyed, and where, why, and by whom? Or, what and how does salt signify in cultural practices and texts, like ancient rituals and recipes, or modern representations and advertisements? Culture, as Raymond Williams famously argued, is the stuff of human life—practices, customs, values, rituals, but also the way people imagine and tell stories about their lives, experiences, and relationships.[1] Salt figures at the centre of many such stories.

In fact, the question of how salt became cultural teaches us a lot about this complicated concept of culture. Salt stands at the threshold between ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’ For many thousands of years, salt was a naturally occurring substance that humans and animals used instinctively to regulate levels of sodium and water in their bodies (this is why salt licks are still used in animal husbandry to herd and organize the movement of animals). But over time and alongside other technological and cultural transformations, salt became a complex and contested object of taste, meaning, and value, one that offers us important insights into more general processes by which the earliest human societies transformed from small, disaggregated bands of hunter-gatherers into sedentary, large-scale, agricultural communities. Anthropologists sometimes refer to this process as one of “hominization” or “becoming-human.” By this, they simply mean that over many thousands of years, Homo sapiens transformed from a hunter-gatherer, quadpedal creature (with which today’s human beings have little in common) into one that we more readily recognize as our physiological and cultural ancestor: people who stood upright, made fire, cooked, pair-bonded, farmed, lived alongside a relatively large number of others for long periods of time, developed rituals, language and other forms of representation, and so on. In short, a species with culture. Salt was present during all these complex transformations. There is archaeological evidence of salt mining in the Araxes Valley of Azerbaijan from 3500 BCE, salt refining in the Mekong River Delta from 900 BCE, and commercial-scale pig salting at Hallstatt during the late Bronze Age. There is even some evidence of a salt trade at Jericho as early as 9000 BCE! Such evidence suggests that, along with cooking and making fire, uses of salt played an important role in these processes of becoming-human.

These early human societies eventually developed systems of writing and representation that allowed them preserve and transmit knowledge toward the future. Such records give us a more precise sense of how they used salt. One area of use was health and wellness. For many centuries prior to modern medical science, healers and alchemists speculated about the machinations of the human body and how certain substances might be used to alleviate pain, remove parasites, and cure disease. These were important goals because, as humans set down roots, transitioning from smaller nomadic communities into longer-term agricultural settlements, viruses, bacteria, and malnutrition settled in place along with them. To combat these problems, a variety of regimes were proposed in which salt played a crucial role. The Charaka-Samhita, a compendium of traditional Indian medicine likely compiled in the 1st or 2nd century CE, suggests salt be used in skin and eye care, enemas, and even to treat wounds after surgery. In the 7th century CE, Isidore of Seville, wrote about the Roman goddess of safety and well-being, Salus, who was named after salt and came to stand as a term for health and even salvation. Chinese medicine has long held that salt is good for the kidneys and liver. It is likely that these uses of salt in early forms of healthcare established habits, or even addictions, that would continue as human bodies became healthier. This leads historian S.A.M. Adshead to suggest salt as “part of the struggle of culture against nature, a weapon of culture supplied by nature,” which “became part of culture itself.”[2]

In spite or because of these practical uses, salt has long served as a powerful metaphor. Most of us have probably heard someone referred to as a “salt of the earth” type, but did you know that phrase comes from the Bible? (Matthew 5:13, “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men”). Maybe you’ve had a particularly “salty” teacher, or a friend whose advice you always take “with a grain of salt.” Most languages and cultural traditions have these types of metaphors. “When the Garuda exhausted his ideas, he boiled salt” notes an ancient Burmese proverb about despair. From the Chinese tradition comes the saying, “Just as dishes without salt are tasteless, so words without reason are powerless” (Cà méi yán wúwèi; huà méi lī, wúlì).

To explore such metaphors and other cultural aspects of salt is to be less interested in how salt gets to a kitchen pantry or dining table than in what it means and how it is used by people in such places. The double meaning of the English word “taste” captures these cultural questions. Taste can be used to describe both cooking and class relations; for instance, how salt combines with other foods to create flavour but at the same time can mark one’s status and power (their “good” or “bad” taste). This was particularly true during the European Middle Ages, when only royals and nobility had ready access to salt. Salt at a table signified the host’s power, privilege, and elegant taste. This is why salt cellars from the period (used to store salt on the table, long before the introduction of salt shakers) were ornately designed using the finest of materials such as silver and gold. Such class dynamics inevitably lead to questions of access and power, the focus of the next section.


Many scholars consider histories of salt as a commodity and staple good, asking such questions as: How is salt transported and traded, and where, by whom, and for what? This approach encompasses the question of value; specifically, how in many cultures salt was considered “white gold.” Roman soldiers were once paid not in gold or silver, but salt! That’s where the English word salary comes from—sal was the Roman word for salt.

Salt’s ancient histories are present not only in words like salary, but also in basic infrastructures of transportation that continue to shape global trade and supply chains of food and other goods. For thousands of years, “salt roads”—ground routes established primarily for the salt trade—spread like veins across the continents, moving people, things, and information from place to place. These infrastructure projects took a lot of time, energy, and resources to build, which makes them valuable, heavy, and difficult to change. And so, when it came time to make improvements, people tended not to replace them but instead to build on top of or around them. This is what scholars and historians of infrastructure and communication refer to as path dependency. A great example is how the internet’s fibreoptic cables were stretched around the globe using poles, wires, and undersea cables, originally built for telephone and telegraph networks. The same was true in ancient times. Today, all roads lead to Rome is a metaphor, but it once expressed a basic truth about how all people, things, and information of consequence flowed through the Imperial capital’s city walls. But the Romans didn’t start from scratch, either. They built this network on top of existing pathways and trade routes, many of which were, according to archaeologists, first used in the salt trade.

Roman roads are a famous example of how transport and communication infrastructures are important sites of economic and political power. This continued to be the case during Europe’s Middle Ages (500 to 1500CE). In Northern Germany, for instance, an Old Salt Road (Alte Salzstrasse) linked the inland city of Lüneburg, which stood atop one of Europe’s largest underground salt deposits, with Lübeck, a major port on the Baltic Sea. There was far more salt at Lüneburg than local and surrounding communities required. Therefore, the Church, which controlled the saltworks, began to transport this surplus to Lübeck. From there, it could be exported to countries such as Norway and Sweden, where demand for salt exceeded supply given the importance of salted fish to Scandinavian diets. Given the vast wealth and power derived from this trade route, those who controlled it sought to defend the route from attacks and preserve the free flow of goods and capital. This was a primary factor in the founding of the Hanseatic League, a group of Northern European towns, duchies, and merchants that banded together to protect each other’s economic interests and infrastructure. In some ways, this multi-lateral security and trade agreement was a precursor to modern interstate cooperatives such as the European Union, or even the United Nations. Some scholars in fact point to the Hansaetic League as an important step toward the founding of modern state system inaugurated with the Peace of Westphalia, a multi-party treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. This treaty established important principles that continue to inform international relations and law, such as the right of each individual state to sovereignty and law over its own territory, the standardization of international borders, and the principle of non-interference, among many others.

That so many resources and so much human labour have been devoted to the extraction and movement of salt testifies to the value it has held for most of its history. But before labour, transportation, and value become concepts used by scholars to describe the movement of people and commodities, they are simple practices and techniques, forms of work that humans conduct using a variety of technologies. This takes us into the third and final section.


To think about technology is to think about how humans do things—what tools and techniques do we use to enhance or extend our bodies? What systems do we develop to cooperate and coordinate our actions with other people, sometimes across vast distances? What structures do we built to improve and enhance our ability to work, communicate, organize, or accumulate resources and wealth? Who owns them? What are the implications of these activities—on our bodies, environments, other people and creates? These are big questions, all of which can be understood within the broad category of “technology.”

The extraction, movement, uses, and exchange of salt help us to consider some of these questions. Salt was so valuable for so long because methods of production were labour and resource intensive. They took a long time and required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. By far the most popular technique was to derive salt through solar evaporation. People would take brine (salty water), either from the ocean or an underground source, put it in a large vessel, and wait. Heat from the sun would slowly evaporate the water, leaving salt crystals behind. Some salt is still produced in this way, particularly in coastal regions. But humans are impatient, especially when there is money to be made, and so they began to experiment with ways of speeding up the process. The most effective and thus popular of these new techniques was to heat the brine using non-solar fuel sources. Until recently, the only way to do this was by burning wood or coal. The outdoor, solarpowered” brine vessels thus became cauldrons, and saltworks became encased in structures with protruding chimneys. This had wide-ranging environmental implications—you can imagine how much wood or coal was required to keep the cauldrons hot enough to boil water away almost 24 hours a day. That’s why most of the areas surrounding old European saltworks have very few trees; they were all chopped down to be used as fuel!

Beyond these environmental and geographic impacts, technologies and techniques of salt production had further consequences on statecraft, migration, and patterns of colonization. Salt was at the centre of the so-called “Age of Exploration” in the 16th and 17th centuries, which started with European powers making regular voyages to fish the waters off the coast of what today we call North America. Salt was necessary as a provision for sailors’ diets, but more importantly it was necessary to preserve the catch for return to European markets. Return voyages took days or weeks—much longer than fish would normally keep—so salt helped keep the fish from rotting. Since solar evaporation was then the dominant mode of salt production, countries with a lot of sunshine like France, Spain, and Portugal were at a distinct advantage to cloudy countries like England. Their ships could bring salt from home and thus salt the catch immediately, on board in barrels, without landing the ship. This process required a lot of salt but it was fast, efficient, and easy to do in a confined space like the deck of a ship. As a result, ships from sunny countries could fish to capacity and return to European markets very quickly. Cloudy Britain, by contrast, did not have ready access to salt and had to acquire it via trade. Because this was more expensive, complex, and time consuming, British crews were motivated to find ways to preserve their catch that required less salt. One way was to spread the fish out so it could be dried in the sun before being lightly salted. But spreading out required more space than was available on the deck of a ship, and more time than they could afford to stay at sea. So, British ships began landing at sunny spots, such as Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, or along the coast of what is today called New England. In drying the catch on land, British crews began to build infrastructure that could be left behind and used again in the future. They even began to leave sailors behind to make room for more fish on the return voyages.[3] These were some of the first European footholds on the North American continent, which had profound consequences for contact with Indigenous communities and the eventual projects of European settlement and colonization. All these decisions, at least in part, were motivated by access to salt.

These examples help us understand that though technological innovation often occurs in the service of what seem like banal purposes—e.g., to find, use, and trade salt—its consequences are anything but. Looking at these tools, techniques, systems, and infrastructures remind us that broad patterns of history settle into place only through practices and objects of everyday life.


In this chapter, I have surveyed some lessons from the history of salt through the lenses of taste, trade, and technology. These lessons show how a substance we today take for granted, or hardly notice at all, has played many important roles throughout human history. German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer once wrote, “When you take a word in your mouth you must realize that you have not taken a tool that can be thrown aside if it won’t do the job, but you are fixed in a direction of thought which comes from afar and stretches beyond you.”[4] The same is true of food. When we take a mineral like salt in our mouths, we are not just enjoying a tasty flavour. We are participating in ancient and ongoing histories of taste, trade, and technology that stretch far beyond us, which are haunted by complicated and contested meanings, and which teach us about many histories of power and struggle.

Discussion Questions

  • What are other foods or spices that we take for granted and that have consequential “hidden histories”?
  • What are some further consequences of humans learning to extend the lifespan of food through salt preservation?
  • For most of recorded human history, salt was known as “white gold.” What are some of the reasons it seems to have faded in value and consciousness over the last hundred years?


Over the course of two to three days, observe every encounter you have with salt. Count, for instance, the number of times you add it to food while cooking or eating. Consider the salt content on ingredient lists of foods you consume, and keep an eye out for non-culinary salt usage (such as on roads during winter).

  • After a few days, survey and reflect on your inventory of uses and encounters. What surprises you about the role of salt in your day-to-day life? Did you consume more or less salt than you expected? How many “unconscious” uses of salt did you encounter?

Pick a source of salt in your cupboard and try to reconstruct its supply chain. In what part of the world was it harvested, and how? What can you find out about the company on the label? Are they a producer of salt, or just a distributor? How do they move salt from the point of production to sites where it is packaged, then on to sites for consumer purchase? What about the workers that help harvest, package, and ship the salt? What are their working conditions?

  • Find a way to creatively visualize this salt supply chain. How do such visualizations supplement our knowledge about tastes, trade, and technologies of salt? Does your supply chain map onto older supply chains, such as those between European imperial capitals and what were once their colonial holdings in the Global South, or perhaps onto an ancient supply routes like the Alte Salzstrasse?

Additional Resources

Le Goff, J. and P. Jeannin. 1956. “Une Enquête Sur Le Sel Dans l’histoire. Revue Du Nord 38 (150): 225–33.

Kurlansky, M. 2011. Salt: A World History. New York: Random House.

Laszlo, P. 2001. Salt: Grain of Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mintz, S.W. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Mumford, L. 2010 [1934]. Technics and Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Multhauf, R.P. 1978. Neptune’s Gift, a History of Common Salt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Adshead, S.A.M. 1992. Salt and Civilization. London: Palgrave.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1975. Truth and method. New York: Seabury Press.

Williams, R. 1958. Culture and Society, 17801950. London: Chatto & Windus.

Innis, H.A. 1978 [1940]. The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. Revised edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  1. See Williams 1958.
  2. Adshead 1992, 26.
  3. Innis 1978 [1940], 30–51.
  4. Gadamer 1975, 496.


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Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement Copyright © 2022 by Liam Cole Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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