Natural History

Salt

salt-crystalsAn essay on the most valuable commodity in human history.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

“Guinea John . . . made his way to the East Coast, mounted the cliff at Manzanilla [Trinidad],

put two corn cobs under his armpits and flew away to Africa, taking with him

the mysteries of levitation and flight . . . He loved his children. It was their living that would

make him an ancestor. His wisdom was theirs to have; but they had eaten salt and

made themselves too heavy to fly. So, because now their future would be in the islands,

he preferred not to place temptation in their way by revealing to them the mysteries of flight.”

Earl Lovelace, Salt (Faber and Faber, 1996, p. 3)

Among some of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas there was a belief that people could fly (as did Guinea John). However, as people spent more and more time on the land they became grounded and lost the ability to fly. In the epigraph, Lovelace uses salt as a trope for becoming grounded (the book’s title is Salt, but there is no further mention of salt in the book).

It is salt-raking season in the Turks & Caicos, although we suspect that the only attention the salt ponds are getting today is from tourists. Solar-distilled salt, meaning salt that precipitates in shallow ponds from evaporation driven by the sun and winds, was once the major industry in these islands. This focus on salt can be traced to the first inhabitants (Tainos).

There is some debate concerning how much salt is good (or bad) for you. Some of you may recall the old American Middle School film “Nemo the Magnificent,” which pointed out that the main component of the human circulatory system (blood and plasma) is best described as salt water. People who live, and do physical labor outdoors, in hot, tropical climates require more salt to replace what is lost through sweating. (OK, horses sweat, men perspire and women glisten). The estimates for how much salt the human body needs ranges from 300 grams (2/3 pound) to eight kilograms (16 pounds) per year! The lack of medical consensus makes it hard to determine how much is needed versus how much might lead to hypertension and heart disease. One thing is clear – salt deficiency causes headaches and weakness, then light-headedness, then nausea.

No one is more familiar with these symptoms than Bill Keegan. Working with Shaun Sullivan on Middle Caicos in the summer of 1982, they headed off to the south coast to do additional mapping at MC-6 and MC-8. About halfway along the 3.5 kilometer trail Keegan became dizzy and developed a horrible headache. By the time they reached Armstrong Pond, he was vomiting continuously. These were the days when Gatorade1 was not so widely available, and so Sullivan required all of his crew to take a daily salt tablet (someone didn’t listen). Fortunately Armstrong Pond was in full salt bloom and after a pinch of salt and a bit of rest it was possible to drink water, without nausea, and then walk back to Bambarra.

flamingos-in-salinaThere is no mention in the Spanish chronicles that the Tainos salted fish. However, there is compelling evidence that they did. First, at least in Hispaniola, the Tainos lived in large villages (up to 3,000 people), many of them in the interior of the island, that must have required a reliable daily supply of meat. Given their lack of domesticated animals and a paucity of terrestrial animals, they must have been dependent on fishes. In fact, Columbus described villages on the south coast of Cuba that lacked adequate agricultural land and thus specialized in fishing. The fishes that they captured were shipped to the large, interior agricultural villages in exchange for cultigens.

There are two main problems with fishes as food. First, in the absence of refrigeration the meat spoils quickly, especially in tropical climates. According to a Caribbean Commission report in the 1950s, fish will remain edible without refrigeration for up to seven days if kept in a cool and dry place. This alone probably was not adequate to meet the Tainos’ daily demand for meat. The Spanish did record that the Tainos smoked fish on a lattice of sticks positioned over a fire (barbacoa) in order to preserve the meat for future use. They don’t mention salting fish, but this may be due to the fact that salted (“corned”) meat and fish was the mainstay of European diets at the time and thus not worthy of mention.

Being able to keep fish for seven days may seem adequate, except for the fact that fishing can be very dependent on weather conditions and season of the year. According to Ramón Pané (1496), the Tainos used the position of the constellation Orion in the night sky as a way to judge the efficacy of fishing. The difficulty in getting fish was brought home to us during fieldwork on Middle Caicos. We spent a month eating chicken wings because no fish were available, despite the fact that we were surrounded by fishermen. When we inquired as to the availability of fish we were repeatedly told that they weren’t fishing because “the bottom is walking” (meaning that despite the beautiful clear day there was too much sediment in the water to make it worth their while to go fishing!).

We have written about Armstrong Pond and the associated archaeological site MC-6 in several of our previous articles. It is a truly amazing site on the south coast of Middle Caicos that has the only central court and astronomical stone alignments in the entire Bahama archipelago. These alignments have been associated with both the summer solstice and the constellation Orion through the very careful investigations and mapping conducted by Dr. Shaun Sullivan. As Sullivan recognized, the major resources in the vicinity of MC-6 are solar-distilled salt on the margins of Armstrong Pond and fishes in the waters of the Caicos Bank. Cementing the relationship between the site and the pond is a one-kilometer aboriginal road connecting them, and unusual stone alignments on the margin of the pond that seem to have been used for drying the salt slurry collected from the pond. Sullivan and his 16 member crew collected almost half a ton of salt in 15 minutes from Armstrong Pond in 1977. Recent studies have suggested that Anguilla, Puerto Rico and a number of sites in the Lesser Antilles also were strategically placed for access to salt ponds.

With regard to fishes, the most common in the site is bonefish. A recent study of fish bones from the site revealed an inordinately high number of head and tail bones (both heavy and inedible) which suggest that fish were being processed (and probably salted) for export to Hispaniola. In addition, the enigmatic stone-lined pit structures surrounding the central plaza (found nowhere else in the Caribbean) may have been used to store salted, smoked and fresh fish prior to shipping. These stone-lined pits would have provided the cool and dry atmosphere recommended by the Caribbean Commission.

In previous essays we have noted that the most common Taino sound is gua, which was used in words to denote the most valuable of items and the most important people, places and things. Granberry and Vescelius (Languages of the Pre-Columbian Antilles, 2004) translate -gua as salt water. The use of this term seems to emphasize the great importance of salt (water) in Taino life. For example, the Taino place name (toponym) Inagua might seem a corruption of the word iguana, but more likely refers to the broad expanse of wetlands on the island that today is home to Morton Salt.

The Morton Salt operation is very impressive. Salt is solar-distilled in a seemingly endless array of shallow ponds. When the salt is ready, road graders push the salt into long rows and then combines blow the salt into huge dump trucks. The trucks bring the salt to a sorting machine to separate it into two grades and the salt ends up in 40-foot tall piles from which it is taken by conveyor out a long pier and dumped directly into the holds of ships.

The salt ponds create an interesting ecosystem. Just prior to crystallization the ponds often develop red alga that is eaten by tiny brine shrimp. These shrimp are the favored food of flamingos, and the red coloration of the alga and shrimp give the flamingo its bright red coloration.

Today, when salt is so inexpensive and plentiful, we tend to take it for granted.  In fact, it is so abundant that we can spread it on our roads to melt ice (although this practice has fallen into disfavor due to the adverse effects of salt on the surrounding vegetation). Yet salt might be ranked as the most valuable commodity in human history; it is the only rock we eat on a regular basis, and at times it has been called “white gold.” Let us recommend Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating book, Salt: A World History (Penguin Books, 2002). Salt has for centuries been associated with sex, as reflected in the word “salty” being associated with virility:  “With salting, front and back, at last strong natures they will not lack.”2  Kurlansky also suggests (p. 203) that:  “THE HISTORY of the Americas is one of constant warfare over salt.  Whoever controlled salt was in power.”

Salt cod was an extremely valuable commodity in Europe by the 15th century. There is credible evidence that European fishermen were capturing cod off the coast of North America before Columbus’s first voyage. As Kerlansky notes, explorers tell you where they went, but fishermen are loathe to divulge the best fishing grounds. History books talk about the triangle trade, but fail to mention that salt was the main cargo and often used as ballast during these voyages – a valuable sale item, as opposed to river rocks which also were used as ballast.

south-caicos-salinaStarting in the 16th century, Spanish vessels may have stopped in the Turks & Caicos to load salt, although there is no tangible evidence that they did so. It wasn’t until Bermuda was settled with the promise of a salt source close to the American fisheries that attention turned south. Bermuda lacks the climate for successful salt making, but they did have wood and they built the fastest sloops out of local cedar. In the 1650s they began to visit the Turks & Caicos to rake salt, and by the early 1700s they had established permanent settlements. As Kerlansky (p. 212) notes, “On these flat, and little islands, everything failed but salt.” Today, the feral donkeys (recently rounded up so as not to offend the cruise ship passengers) are the lasting legacy of the Bermudians.

The modern salt industry notes more than 14,000 uses for salt. Recently it has become fashionable to purchase salts of various textures and colors as a gourmet additive to food. Salt continues to be an important ingredient in various spices such as soy sauce (made with salted soy beans), ketchup (originally made with salted anchovies) and pepper sauce (the best known is certainly Tabasco®, which came originally from salted hot peppers grown on Avery Island in Louisiana where salt was the main resource). With regard to the latter, we were just a little surprised to find a tiny bottle of Tabasco® included in one of the U.S. military’s MRE packages (“Meals Ready to Eat;” the modern equivalent of K-rations).

To learn more about salt, we suggest you read H.E.  Sadler’s local history Turks Islands Landfall and visit the Turks & Caicos National Museum in Grand Turk. While you are there, be sure to buy a bag of local salt – a sure taste of the local history.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an Archaeologist with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc., Jonesville, Florida.

1 Gatorade was invented by a team of physicians at the University of Florida (UF) in 1965. Dr. Robert Cade, who passed away in 2007, is given primary credit for this drink that was developed to enhance the performance of the UF football team, which plays its games in “The Swamp.” There is a rumor that the Florida State University Seminoles tried to outdo their rival University of Florida Gators by creating their own sports drink. For some reason, their drink, called Seminole Fluid, never caught on.

2The quote is from an AD 1157 Paris engraving titled Women Salting Their Husbands that demonstrated how to make your man more virile (Kerlansky 2002, p. 4).  Perhaps Morton Salt needs to start competing with Viagra!



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