There are many different perspectives from which to view human history. The most common method–taught in schools and practiced by probably a majority of professional historians–is from the perspective of politics–cataloging the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires and cultures through examining the lives of their political leaders–a corollary of the “great man” view of history. What a boring and ultimately, only marginally fruitful, exercise. The history of humankind on the planet surely involves something a bit more interesting than just who led which army that defeated whom and when. While the Roman empire was ascendant in the western world 2,000 years ago, was there nothing else happening that mattered except the intrigues of Cleopatra and Mark Antony? What were the Gauls, Goths and Celts doing? What about the East? Wasn’t this about the time of the first Chinese Emperor? How about India? What was life like for the average human living two millennium ago in each of these places?
Every human that has ever lived has a story to tell. When the perspective is politics, the stories of all the little humans get subsumed in the big story of the great leaders and the political organizations they led. What a tragic and myopic way to view man’s journey through space and time.
Whenever I see a review of yet another biography of someone like Abraham Lincoln (I refuse to actually read biographies of people about whom I already substantively know), I groan. How many biographies of people like Abraham Lincoln are really necessary? Does anyone care at all about the lives of the poor saps Lincoln committed to slaughter at Gettysburg? There wouldn’t have been any high-minded justification and rationalization for the slaughter as embodied in the Gettysburg Address had not the common man been willing to commit his life to the carnage. What compelled him to do so? Is there no perspective from which to view the events of history that doesn’t treat as invisible all the people that make such political leadership possible?
I’ve often considered that a beautiful history of mankind could be written from the perspective of some inanimate object or substance that weaves a common thread through human existence. In “Salt: A World History”, Mark Kurlansky settled on the perfect substance from which to view history: Salt.
Water comprises two-thirds of our body weight, just as the ocean comprises two-thirds the surface of the earth, but without salt, we could not use any of it. By some evolutionary quirk, we can’t take our water with salt already dissolved in it, such as the ocean conveniently provides. Instead, the water has to be fresh and the salt consumed separately. This wasn’t usually a problem for our prehistoric hunter/gatherer ancestors. They got enough salt from their mainly carnivorous diet. It only became an issue once we settled into a sedentary lifestyle of agriculture. Whether farming or grazing, securing a supplemental source of salt is a necessity–for the animals, if grazing and for the people, if farming. The story of man’s quest for and uses of salt frames a poignant perspective from which to view man’s history. Kurlansky, having fastidiously researched his subject, does a marvelous job in the telling of it. He provides a cornucopia of facts and factoids about salt (and recipes in which salt is a major component), weaving them into a solid narrative of the life and times of the people to which they are related.
Initially salt was used as a dietary supplement. Eventually it was learned that it operated magnificently to preserve food. Not surprising to anyone with just a skeletal grasp of world history, the Chinese were probably the first to learn to dig brine wells and distill the salt from the brine by boiling. While Octavius was consolidating empire in the Mediterranean, Chinese peasants were learning that the mysterious poison gas seeping from their salt mines was flammable and could be used to heat the boiling pans used for evaporation. While Romans were building aqueducts to supply their burgeoning population with water, Chinese salt workers were using bamboo piping to carry brine and natural gas from their mine shafts to the surface to be used together for distilling the salt required of their diet. When the Romans pushed into what is today Central Europe, they conquered Celtic tribes that had already mastered salt mining and distillation.
The economic history of the world could be written in salt. Until very recently (the last hundred or so years), the salt trade formed a bulwark of economic activity, and its taxation, a significant source of revenue for governments of every type, from empires to kingdoms to democracies. The quest for salt accompanied and buttressed the quest for economic survival. Gandi started the revolution in India that ultimately resulted in economic and political independence by embarking with a dozen of his fellows on a two hundred mile march to the salt works in Orissa to protest the British prohibition against private salt collection. By the time he reached his destination, the march numbered in the hundreds of thousands. When he arrived, Gandi defiantly scooped his hand in the salt bed without license, and India would soon be freed from its colonial oppressor.
Until very recently, mining or distilling salt was expensive, and salt as a dietary supplement, but mostly as a food preservative, was in great demand. Salt is little needed for food preservation anymore, and technological advancements in procuring it, have combined to make it now cheap and plentiful. What was once a treasure is now a commodity, like so much else has become as a result of the industrial revolution. A twenty ounce tin of plain white salt costs just thirty-eight cents in my supermarket. The expensive salts today are the dirty salts that were once disdained for their impurities. The wealth wrought by technological advancements that allowed the production of uniformly pure white salt (sodium chloride) now allows us to splurge on salt that is inefficiently produced in the old-fashioned ways, yielding impure, but more natural salt. The old is new again as the history of the world according to salt keeps turning.
These are just a few glimpses of the perspective offered by Kurlansky. He is a talented writer and an even better researcher. This book is for anyone with an interest in history that appreciates there is more than one view from which to glean it. It also offers excellent insights to anyone that loves food and its preparation, describing in exquisite detail the cultural origins of a great many of today’s common foods, and the methods in which they were prepared. Salt weaves a powerful thread through the history of mankind. Its story is one worth knowing.