Salt more valuable than goldThe human body needs salt in order to maintain a healthy metabolism. It is still used today in modern medicine and was for a long time essential in preserving food. All these features make salt an indispensable and therefore precious raw material. In the past, salt was not available everywhere, and was never taken for granted. Salt production and the salt trade were important economic factors even far back in prehistory.
Salt as a source of wealth
Salt requirements of the human body
Medicinal uses of salt
Salt as a preservative
Hallstatt and Hallein, the two major salt production centres in the eastern Alpine region, were the initial starting points for the salt trade throughout Europe. Even in early modern times, many people could not afford this much appreciated product. Possession of salt and control over its trade meant wealth, and was the basis for the prosperity of many secular or clerical principalities. A significant proportion of revenue came from custom duties raised at the borders of the territorial dominions, which meant that the price of the salt increased in proportion to the distance over which it was transported.
An adult human needs at least 3 grams of salt per day to prevent a metabolic malfunction that would result in dehydration: all body fluids are saline solutions. Salt regulates the fluid balance and ensures a properly functioning metabolism in the digestive system and kidneys. Although, in modern industrial nations, people often ingest more salt than they should, salt can be an effective treatment.
It was of particular importance in medieval medicine and, later, as a folk remedy. Therapeutic baths containing salt have been prescribed since the beginning of the 16th century AD at least (by the physician Paracelsus). In modern spa therapies, salt is used as an external application, and it is also absolutely essential in modern hospitals.
People started to exploit the preservative effect of salt a long time ago. Food conservation is among the oldest and most important techniques we have invented. Before modern cooling and preservation techniques, the only available curing methods were drying, kilndrying, roasting, smoking and salting, and the hunters and gatherers of the Palaeolithic period must have known how to store food. Being able to stockpiling nutrition educes seasonal dependence and makes food available at times when harvesting, the seasonal culling of livestock or hunting is not possible. Adding salt was one of the most reliable methods of curing food and it made it transportable over long distances.
(Kowarik, K. Reschreiter, H.)