Salt is so common that it almost isn’t interesting.
However, it hasn’t always been that way. Salt has a big responsibility in biological systems, used to be a form of money, and has started and determined the outcomes of wars — including the American Civil War. This seemingly boring compound deserves a lot more credit than we give it.
While we know salt mostly for the extra flavor it adds to foods, it meant much more in ancient times. Today, we preserve food by keeping it cold. Ancient civilizations did not have refrigerators. Instead, salt was used to preserve food for long periods of time.
Salt is a preservative because it draws out the liquid from objects that it touches. Bacteria that spoil food require liquid. By drawing the liquid out of food, the salt is able to keep the food safe for long periods of time, denying bacteria the moisture it needs. For this reason, salt was a very important tool in keeping a civilization healthy and fed.
There was another important ceremonial use for salt for some ancient civilizations: to preserve human bodies. Salt was packed with the mummies to draw out the moisture from the body to prevent bacteria from settling in.
Because of its importance, ancient cities were built near places where salt could be collected. Matter of fact, the first known city in Europe was built around a salt production area. The city’s name was Solnitsata, which was located in what is now Bulgaria.
As ancient cities popped up, many were in places where salt could easily be obtained. Cities that were not directly involved in salt production had to build salt roads, roads used for the sole purpose of trading salt with nearby communities. These roads also imposed a salt tax, starting in the year 1286 and lasting until 1790.
Also, due to its importance, salt was used for trading and money. It was not uncommon for workers to be paid in salt — and that even happened during our Revolutionary War with the British. The colonies did not have enough money to pay the troops, so they were sometimes paid with salt.
It’s hard to believe that the salt we can now buy for less than $1 per container started wars, but it certainly did. Remember, salt was what allowed civilizations to store food for times when it was scarce — so it was literally a life-and-death situation. Therefore, if there was ever a threat to a source of salt, it was not unreasonable for it to escalate to a war. It is believed that the first salt war occurred in 6000 B.C. over a salt lake in ancient China.
In the 16th century, Poland grew into a huge empire because of salt mines on their land. However, when the Germans found ways to produce salt from the sea, the Polish empire failed as they had a lot of salt but nobody to sell it to.
Even wars that were not directly related to salt were impacted by this compound. The term “salting the earth” refers to a wartime practice where one side would pour salt all over their enemy’s fields. Normal crops cannot grow in salty soil, so the salt was used as a starvation weapon.
Salt even had an influence during the American Civil War. Salt was critical in preserving food for the fighters on both sides of the war. The Union knew that the south only had a handful of salt production facilities, so they targeted and destroyed them. This cut off the Confederate Army’s salt supply, which also decreased their food supply.
Next time you put some salt on your fries, stop and think about how easy this is for you. We take for granted that we don’t have to pay a special salt tax or go to war for our right to our salt. Come back for next week’s article on how salt makes it from its natural sources all the way to your food.
Mike Szydlowski is science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.
TIME FOR A POP QUIZ
1. What did ancient civilizations use salt for? Give three examples.
2. What would happen if an ancient population did not have salt supplies?
3. Why would a war related to salt not be likely anymore?
4. Which would go bad first — a fresh piece of bread or a piece of toast? Why?
5. Research it! Do humans need salt to survive? Why or why not?
LAST WEEK’S POP QUIZ ANSWERS
1. Why do cities spend so much money on snow removal?
Citizens have an expectation that snow is removed from roads immediately to get to work and school.
2. Name two reasons why a blanket of snow makes a city quieter.
First, there is less activity during a snowstorm. Second, snow is a great sound insulator and absorbs much of the sound.
3. Why does a good snowstorm positively affect our health?
A snow storm gives us an unexpected break and makes the world very peaceful and quiet for a brief period of time.
4. Why will allowing Mother Nature to melt snow never work in some cities?
For cities that stay cold, the snow will not melt for a long time and removal will be necessary.
5. What are the benefits of people taking or being given a snow day after some snowfalls?
In addition to saving lots of money, taking the day off when it snows will keep you healthier by eliminating the stress of snowy travel and also recharging your body with a relaxing day.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Science worth its salt