History of Salt Intake

The fundamental drive to obtain salt can be traced back to the earliest times when humans evolved in a hot African environment with scarce sources of salt. Evidence has been found of salt use during the Neolithic Age, and the Egyptian, Babylonian and Chinese civilizations all had special culinary uses for salt that are well documented. In China, for centuries the production of salt was a major industry. Salt sources were highly valued and were often protected. A tax on salt in the form of a head tax provided the Chinese government with a reliable source of revenue from about 2200 bc onwards. For centuries the only method of extraction practiced by coastal salt-workers was to boil sea water and this technique was employed in every maritime province of China as late as 1830. Solar evaporation was also used; shallow salt fields were filled with seawater which was shifted from field to field daily until salt crystallization began. A third method used in areas either far from the sea or on higher ground involved digging wells to tap sea water or salt-enriched aquifers.

Evidence for the exploitation of saline slicks in the Austrian Tyrol dates from the Bronze Age and to this day the salt mines of Salzburg in Austria and Krakow, Poland are still in use. For the Indians in Central America salt was so precious that to please their gods they abstained from eating salt and Mexican civilizations offered sacrifices to the Goddess of Salt, Vixtocioatl. Arab cultures still offer salt to visitors as a sign that their guest is safe; even a Bedouin robber will not violate the laws of hospitality once he has tasted his host's salt.

In pre-Roman times, the principal Italian road started at the salt works near the mouth of the Tiber River and cut through the Italian peninsula towards the Adriatic. In North Africa, the caravan route linked the salt oases, while salt roads were a feature of several South American countries. From remote parts of South America, such as the Amazon and Argentina, trails of more than 1500 km were linked to form the famous 'Cerro de Sal.' In the sixteenth century, sea salt crystals were traded from the sea through the Andes, gradually becoming more expensive further from the sea so that at distances of over 300 km only tribal chiefs used it. The common people made do with salt processed from palms and human urine. Salt from springs near Bogota was traded over a distance of 200 km to the north and south. Columbus' voyages were financed by the wealthy proprietors of the Mata Salt region of Spain, and when the first Spaniards arrived in South America in 1537, they found Indians exploiting local salt reserves on a large scale.

The financial structure of Venice was also substantially affected by the salt trade, which contributed to the emergence of Venetian capitalism and the vast fortunes of some Venetian merchants. In France, salt became a political issue in the fourteenth century; the tax on salt was the most hated of all taxes and a major issue prior to the French Revolution. At that time England, Germany, and Italy also taxed salt and in Britain the control of the world salt markets was a substantial contributor to its wealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Liverpool, a minor tobacco port in the early eighteenth century, also became a major trading city in part due to its role in the salt trade.

During the earliest period of British rule in India the supply of salt was often tightly controlled and taxed. Gandhi emphasized the essential nature of common salt for human and animal well being, especially in a tropical country like India. Gandhi's 'salt march' to the sea broke the monopoly on salt use and led to his arrest and jailing. The following revolt, with 100 000 arrests, brought a change in the law to allow people to produce salt for their own use.

The production of salt currently depends on the same range of methods that have been used for centuries with substantial amounts being obtained by dry mining and with solution mining still involving water being pumped into rock salt deposits and the resulting brine being pumped back up to the surface for purification and evaporation. Solar evaporations, the oldest of the methods, is still used in hotter climates where salt pools allow the evaporation of sea water in the sun to produce salt. Currently, world salt production is over 210 million tons a year with 60% of the production being used to manufacture chlorine, caustic soda, and synthetic soda ash. About 20% of the world's production is for food use.

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