4 Materials and Goods that Shaped Early Globalization

View of the mosque made of salt bricks inside the Khewra Salt Mines complex in Pakistan. Image by Dawoodmajoka. Public Domain


Sodium chloride, or common table salt, has been used around the world since antiquity. In a world without refrigeration, salt was a vital staple. Human beings need salt to live and salt provided a method to preserve most agriculture products and slaughtered animals. Aside from preserving meats, the use of salt has been documented in religious texts and used to prevent war-defeated regions from cultivating the land. Salt is found naturally in ocean water, underground, and in salt flats.

In the thirteenth century, salt rock deposits were discovered near Wieliczka in southern Poland. Workers dug shafts to begin the laborious work of harvesting the rock salt and sending it to the surface. Over time the salt mine became a massive underground facility that demonstrated the evolution of industry and artisanship. Various technological advances improved mining and how workers sent salt rock to the surface while at the same time artisans carved ornate sculptures, rooms, and chapels within the mine. Wieliczka mine earned the moniker of “the underground cathedral of Poland.” Mining salt rock for roughly nine hundred years is in itself a testament to the importance of salt throughout the early-modern era.

Salt is not just something added to fries. When meats are salted, they become preserved foods that can be stored and eaten in the future. If meat is not salted, or cured, it will rot, as evidenced by maggots, flies, and fungus. When meat is salted, it becomes a chemically stable product with a much longer shelf life. Salted meat could be put into satchels and carried by travelers or placed in barrels for trans-oceanic voyages providing needed subsistence. For centuries, salt was an important commodity. As long-distance and global travel increased during the fifteenth century, salt began playing an ever-important role.

As trade along the Silk Roads increased and as European nations began circumnavigating the globe, so did the need for salt to preserve meats and fishes. When groups warred against each other in the interior for various reasons, the underground salt mining and salt transportation were interrupted. Without the shipping of salt to fisheries, for example, the fish could not be salted and dried and then traded or sold for consumption.

A salina is a salt flat, salt marsh, or salt lake. Usually found in South America or the Caribbean, the salt flats were essential for a growing globalizing trade during the early modern era. The environment of a salt flat is one that lacks fresh water, is infertile for cultivation, and maintains a temperature around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27C). Laborers raked the salt, loaded it onto ships, and sold it for a variety of uses. As Europeans and Asians came in contact with salt from the Caribbean they marveled at its color and purity and proclaimed it better than any European mined salt rock. Near the end of the early-modern era the demand for salt was for a specific type: salt from salinas in the Caribbean.