Sugar and salt: commodities that drove the world. For millenia, religion, commerce, war, health, and gold were tied to little white crystals.
In the beginning animals wore paths, looking for salt licks; men followed; trails became roads; settlements grew beside them. Scarcity kept salt precious, and as civilization spread, salt became one of the world’s principal trading commodities. The ready availability of salt is a recent luxury.
The earliest evidence for salt production comes from China, where people had been harvesting it from Lake Yuncheng by 6000 BC. Salt was reserved for the courts; Chinese emperors used salt to preserve meat.
But farmers and their animals, who almost never ate meat, needed the salt. In our salt-soaked times, where sodium is considered a conduit to high blood pressure, we don’t always remember that we need it. Sodium controls fluid balance and the functioning of nerves and muscles. Every farmer had to buy at least a little, for himself and his family.
So began China’s salt tax. It was considered less provoking to the masses to tax them by a commodity they were (supposedly) volunteering to buy, rather than by a headtax over which they had no control. By the last few hundred years BC, salt accounted for about 80% of state revenue in some parts of China. The salt trade was corrupt; salt merchants quickly became rich. 3,000 years after salt began being traded, salt itself turned into currency.
Sugar contains some common origins with salt. Human physiology evolved on a diet with little sweetening and almost no refined carbohydrates. Sugar probably entered our diet by accident and similar, to salt, it was introduced there by animals. Sugarcane was probably a fodder crop at first, used to fatten swine, and humans started chewing on the canes.
Like salt, sugar was first mass produced and refined in Asia. Chemically refined sugar appeared in India about 2,500 years ago. From there, the technique spread east towards China and west towards Persia. Unlike salt, sugar was considered a luxury instead of an everyday condiment.
According to legend, it was Alexander the Great who first brought sugar canes back to Greece, after an expedition to India. Around 300 BC, his admiral Nearchos sailed along the Indus River, where sugar canes were growing.
Ironically, sugar was valued for its medicinal qualities. In the 6th century, Christian, Jewish, and Persian scholars gathered at an Iranian university to create the first teaching hospital. One of the first medicines they wrote about: that rare and potent drug, sugar. In fact, sugar was regularly used as a medicine until the 17th century.
Salt was also valued as medicine: it made a good antiseptic. The word itself is derived from Salus, the Roman goddess of health. Also ironic, considering today’s salt epidemic.
Salt’s commercial importance is reflected in the etymology of ‘salary,’ which owes its first part to ‘salt’. (The second stems from the Latin ‘argentum’, or silver.) One of the busiest roads to Rome was called the Via Salaria, the ‘Salt Route’, through which salt was transported from marshes at the Tiber’s foot.
6th century Sahara: Moorish merchants were trading salt for gold: one ounce of salt for one ounce of gold. Cakes of salt were used as money in areas of central Africa. Salt routes crisscrossed the globe. Ships bearing salt from Egypt to Greece traversed the Mediterranean and the Aegean. In Tibet, cakes of salt were pressed with images of the emperor and used as currency.
In contrast, it was only during the First Crusade that Europeans learned about sugar. In 1099 they captured Jerusalem, where sugar production was booming, and brought some home with them. The discovery forced creation of the first trading fleets in medieval Europe, bringing to the Europeans knowledge of the Orient and Middle East .
The glittering port city of Venice owed its wealth in part to salt, in part to sugar. Venetians exchanged salt in Constantinople for Asian spices. In the Middle Ages, Venice was Europe’s main sugar importer/ exporter. The first sugar loaf, or ‘Venican cone’, appeared in the city in the 15th century.
Much the same as salt, sugar was known as “white gold”. People actually stored sugar as a form of savings. One bishop in Portugal lost his life savings when it turned out that the sugar he had stored, transported across Egypt, had been ruined by camel sweat.
Although sugar arrived in Europe around 1100, it was not widely used until the 16th century. Until then it was reserved for rich people. Colombus’s discovery changed that; the American continent had a wonderful climate for sugar cane cultivation. Plantations were set up in the West Indies and South America. A ‘triangular trade’ was set up, wherein European shipowners delivered trinkets; they in turn received African men and women. These were sold as slaves in America, and the ships returned to Europe with their sugar. Between 1501 and 1867, more than 12 and a half million Africans were shipped to the Americas, over a quarter dying on the way.
Following the rise in its production, sugar was no longer reserved for the upper classes. Despite sugar’s ancient origins, it was its sudden mass consumption since the 17th century that created the health risks associated with it today.
The fact that sugar is not a vital health need makes it all the more astonishing that it so drastically changed the world’s makeup. The widely quoted studies showing that sugar is more addictive than cocaine sheds some light on this transformation. Essentially, the formation of history has been driven for millennia by the powerful influence of a subtle drug.