Salt: man's motivator, from civil to carnal

Sunday, September 27, 1987

Salt has been known and produced by all the civilizations on Earth since before history was recorded. And, according to one scientist, salt may have been what jump-started man into developing civilization itself.

"Much of our present civilization and habits are based on the ready availability of salt," writes Professor M.R. Bloch, of Israel's Ben-Gurion University and the Max-Planck Institute for Kernphysik, Heidelberg, Germany.

In a 1976 article tracing the history of salt production, Bloch links the rising and falling of ocean levels in Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean to the history of civilization in those areas.

When the ocean rose it drove early man from the coastal plains, where hunting and fishing was easy, and forced him to develop an agricultural existence, Bloch argues.

As vegetable foods began to make up a larger percentage of man's diet, he needed to collect ocean or rock salt to make up for the natural salt that had been provided by an all-meat diet.

But mineral salt does not affect the body in quite the same way that salt found in animal foods does.

Crystallized salt from the sea contains much less of the element bromine - about one part in 2,000 - than salt obtained from the blood and meat of animals, which has about one part in 30 of bromine.

"As bromine has a sedative effect on the human nervous system, one might speculate whether the new circumstances of bromine reduction stimulated greater activity and advance," Bloch writes.

In other words, when consumption of bromine dropped, the result was a major zap to the nervous system of the species.

But salt did more than just get civilizations started, according to Bloch: It took a major hand in their development.

"Power to control a population's salt supply was power over life and death," he writes. "... in fact, the history of salt can account for the rise and fall of populations, wars of repression and revolt and many other aspects of man's history."

Wherever salt was scarce, or had to be transported long distances, it had a profoundly militarizing effect on the local culture.

"Caravans had to be protected from bandits and pirates. Convoys had to be organized; stores and staging places; ports and trading posts had to be fortified; bridges and passes had to be manned ... Oriental rulers, through their military forces that guarded the salt stores and salt routes, exercised more absolute power over life and death than the most dictatorial of Roman Emperors."

Conversely, easily available salt tended to produce societies "free, independent and liberal," Bloch writes.

Sometimes, perhaps, even a bit too liberal.

"Salt-starved people find salt a strong aphrodisiac," Bloch notes toward the end of the piece. This is because "sexual function is the first to suffer when a man or woman is very salt-hungry."

This, he speculates, is the reason Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, is supposed in mythology to have been born from the sea, and why her Cypriot worshippers always ate salt at her festivals before getting down to, ahem, business.

And, although Bloch doesn't mention it, it also makes it clear that there is more than one way for sodium chloride to raise the blood pressure.