We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More
The Sciences

Salt Played a Pivotal Role in Ancient Human History

From ancient Egypt to Rome, cultures and civilizations have long used salt for a variety of different reasons.

By Sean MowbrayMay 7, 2024 10:00 AM
Various salt types in 4 wooden spoons on dark background.
(Credit: simarik/Getty Images)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Writing over 2,000 years ago, the Roman author Pliny the Elder stated unequivocally that “without salt, by Hercules, one cannot have a civilized life”.

Looking back across the span of human history, it's hard to disagree with Pliny's assessment. Different peoples and cultures across the globe have sought out salt for a variety of reasons. Though today, salt is much maligned due to its presence, and overabundance, in many foods, human beings do need a certain amount of it for a healthy lifestyle. (Overconsumption, though, is linked to a number of prominent health issues.)

Still, as Anthony Harding, an archaeologist who studied the history of salt while at University of Exeter, explains “we all need a certain intake of salt, and, of course, it enhances taste.” These two reasons partially help explain the drive to extract salt from the earth and put it to use — a practice that dates back thousands of years and has been utilized by peoples across the globe.

The Rise of Salt and Agriculture

For such reasons, says Paul Eubanks, a salt archaeologist at the University of Alabama, there is an established but “loose” connection between the development of agriculture and use of salt across the globe. As hunter-gatherers moved to more sedentary agricultural ways of life, salt came into demand.

Read More: How Salt Transforms Our Food and Impacts Our Bodies

But salt is also useful immensely useful for another purpose: preserving food. Ancient Egyptians began using salt in this way by around 2000 B.C.E, and its likely that it was used well before that to keep a wide variety of foodstuffs edible in the absence of modern tech like refrigerators.

“That's why salt is always very important throughout the ages and throughout all cultures,” Harding adds.

How Did Ancient Cultures Use Salt?

In ancient times, salted fish was vitally important to numerous cultures, including those of Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Mesoamerica, and China.

In general, salt has helped preserve all kinds of foodstuffs throughout the ages. For example, in the Mediterranean region, salt helped produce the highly sought-after Roman delight known as garum. Beyond that, over time, largescale fish salting centers emerged, which enabled the shipping of products across the region.

As well as helping ancient peoples conserve their food, salt was also in high demand for its use in medical treatments. Pliny the Elder, for example, notes numerous qualities linked to salt such as its ability to remove wrinkles, sooth the belly after childbirth, and cure wounds in the eyes of cattle; in his day, the finest medicinal salt came from Tarentum on Italy’s southern coast.

Read More: Why Road Salt is Bad for the Environment

Ancient Egyptians also made use of natron, a naturally occurring salt, in the process of mummification. Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia, its use was included in recipes to increase potency. And in ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates noted that salt, alum, and vinegar could effectively diminish bad breath.

Other Uses of Salt Throughout History

Eubanks also points to other uses — still common today in many places in the world — such as salt therapy, or the practice of breathing in air containing tiny salt particles. This ancient practice dates back thousands of years and is shared by many different cultures; Hippocrates suggested this treatment for respiratory problems.

These uses of salt also intermingled with cultural, religious, and spiritual beliefs. Harding notes that it's unclear when, exactly, such practices began, but they may stretch back as far as prehistory (before the existence of written records) based on some archaeological evidence. One of the qualities assigned to salt was its power to purify or to ward off evil, believed by peoples from the Americas to Asia.

Nonetheless, Eubanks emphasizes that much remains to be learned about our long-standing relationship with salt.

Read More: A Virtual 3D Satellite Fly-Over of Utah's Once Great Salt Lake Reveals Shocking Shrinkage

“Salt is something that we take for granted today. It's cheap [and] it's widely available,” he says. Yet looking back across ancient civilizations, that wasn’t always the case. “This was one of the most important trade commodities that humans had access to.”

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Sean Mowbray is a freelance writer based in Scotland. He covers the environment, archaeology, and general science topics. His work has also appeared in outlets such as Mongabay, New Scientist, Hakai Magazine, Ancient History Magazine, and others.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.