Continuing on with the Meekonomics project. I’ve adjusted the focus of Chapter One; Prehistoric – Trade, The Gold Standard and Numbers on Screens and refocussed the first 4 Chapters into a full section on the History of Money. What follows is another excerpt from chapter one on the development of the salt trade.
Everyone knows you can’t live without salt. The chemical compound, Sodium chloride, in small quantities, is essential for all animal life as it aids in regulating the fluid content of our bodies and helps to transmit electrical currents through our nervous systems. The harmful effects of too much salt have been well documented, mainly focusing on increased blood pressure and heart disease but too little salt can also lead to dizziness, muscle cramping and neurological problems. Salt occurs abundantly enough in nature that the human animal would likely have survived for millions of years without the need to mine or refine it but for human societies to grow and prosper the adequate distribution of salt was and is essential.
We can trace large scale salt production to areas of China and South Eastern Europe as far back as the 6th millennium BC. The Precucuteni Culture of Romania and the Ukraine began boiling water from salt springs as early as 6000 BC in order to extract the precious mineral, while in the Shanxi province of China salt was skimmed of the surface of Xiechi Lake near the present day city of Yuncheng 500 years before that. These ancient salt works are responsible for the rapid growth of these cultures nearly 2000 years before the emergence of agriculture and cities in the Fertile Crescent.
Salt took on the characteristics of currency and began to be traded as such with the emergence and growth of Egyptian society around 3000 BC. Egyptian salt, along with salted fish and birds were traded all over Phoenicia, as far away as present day Greece and Iran. The preservative qualities of salt made it easy to transport meat and other agricultural products over large distances as well as aiding in the growth of city states from Athens to Babylon and all points in between.
Even after salt ceased to be traded as currency, its trade remained arguable the most important industry in the world, outside of agriculture, for thousands of years, only to be surpassed by oil during the industrial revolution and at the advent of refrigeration.
Some economist would argue that WWI was fought in part as a clash between industrial powers and salt cartels.
Apart from the Egyptians; salt cartels much like the oil cartels of today grew and dominated throughout Europe giving rise to the Celts
and Romans and was largely responsible for the dominance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire right up until the beginning of the 20th
century. Indeed at the end of WWI when the remaining members of the Austrian royal family were removed from power and exiled to one estate they were allowed to operate one business, a salt works outside of Salzburg (salt city) where they remain to this day.
But of course with wealth comes a desire for nice things; luxuries that have little or no practical value. It was this desire for status that helped transform currency from trade in practical items to a fluid form of representative value.
Next Time I look at class distinctions, luxury and the development of a currency based on a trade in precious metals