Salt has always been valuable; it's necessary for life and - until modern times - difficult to produce. Supposedly it was used as a currency in Abyssinia (ancient Ethiopia).

What circumstances in a largely Earth-like world would make salt a viable currency? A hot and dry climate would make it more valuable, as people secrete it more rapidly, but those conditions also lead to salt being easier to produce (I'd think, am I wrong?): seasonal lakes and warm dry sea shores. Would humid conditions make storing salt impractical?

Parameters: Bronze Age technology; established governments which could reasonably certify quantity and quality of salt; there's a sea not far away but the bulk of humanity lives at least 50 km away, in this area anyway.

I can imagine salt being a currency for common folk, while merchants and nobles use metal coins. Is this a more plausible scenario?

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    $\begingroup$ With higher technology, an interesting comparison would be Dune, where water is currency. It has the same property of being necessary for life and stored in the body. So you might get people recycling salt from their bodily wastes and from the bodies of their dead. You might also have people banking their salt wealth with a local authority, in exchange for coins or tokens which can be freely traded. $\endgroup$ – Nate Eldredge Aug 25 '15 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ So you want a society that uses salt like we use gold or silver? $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Aug 25 '15 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ @PyRulez: more or less. I expect that precious metals would be more practical for large transactions, as salt has typically been much cheaper. For example, I found it priced at ha'penny per pound in 15th century England, and so worth nominally 1/480th its weight in silver. I'm sure it was higher in other places - that's basically my question! $\endgroup$ – user243 Aug 25 '15 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades Whatever circumstances Rome had. They are said to have paid their soldiers in salt, which is why we call our yearly earnings a "salary". This is also the origin of phrases like "being worth one's salt". $\endgroup$ – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Aug 25 '15 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Was Cheber That same link says modern sources don't believe they were typically paid in salt. $\endgroup$ – MichaelS Aug 26 '15 at 5:50

A viable currency simply requires that people see it as such.

Salt was used or highly valued in a lot of places. Apparently, the word “salary” stems from the Latin word “salarium,” meaning “salt money.” The Romans paid soldiers, officers, and civil administrators an allowance of salt (or money to buy salt) and the term stuck around.

You can actually view salt in a similar fashion as modern cryptocurrency. Anyone can make it or collect it, but it takes time and energy, both things that are very limited per individual. The collected currency is a symbol for time spent. The salt miners/desalinators spend time collecting a certain amount of salt and people are willing to trade them other goods for their collected time. It would no longer be viable once someone figured out how to mass produce it and its value dropped so much that it would be impracticable to carry around so much salt.

Storing it would not be much of a problem, people have been keeping things dry for a long time. Damp salt can be easily dried before it's weighed in a transaction or the transaction can be based on volume (meaning damp salt would be less valuable).

It is far more likely that people would use a different currency for higher level transactions. You wouldn't want to be stuck trading with a coastal city all the time in salt because they're infinitely more wealthy than you. Coins might be used as a fiat currency or as a representative money backed by salt. In that case, salt is simply used as a slightly more formal barter system when coins can not be manufactured in large enough quantities.


The primary thing to keep salt as a viable currency is for mass production to not be possible. For our own history, the invention of ceramics was most likely crucial in allowing the mass harvesting of sea salt. For your world, if salt deposits (and therefore mines) are not discovered then the suppression of ceramics is the easiest way to maintain scarcity.

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  • $\begingroup$ If the coastal city can get infinite (or a lot of) salt, it collapses as a currency. If it just has more salt than other places, it would be the salt equivalent of a gold mine, and you would have salt runs, and salt cowboys shooting each other over the salt. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Aug 25 '15 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ @PyRulez They have access to an infinite amount (not literally). They're wealthy; not rich. They still have to spend the time collecting it, hence the value, even in our own past. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Aug 25 '15 at 2:11
  • $\begingroup$ You said the coastal city is infinitely more wealthy than you. If you are having problems where you don't want to do business with a certain area because of their wealth, the currency has a problem. If anything, you should be more inclined to do business with a wealthy place, since then you become wealthy with respect to other places. If you don't do business with them, others will. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Aug 25 '15 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer, but I'm aware of these things. I'd specifically like to know what circumstances would make salt a likely currency - e.g., would hot weather driving up demand or cold weather making evaporation more energy intensive lead to higher prices? Are there factors I haven't considered? Perhaps geological conditions that would make mineable salt rare? $\endgroup$ – user243 Aug 25 '15 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades Non-receding oceans. Salt deposits are left behind from ancient oceans drying up and leaving their salt behind. If your world (or the continent your people live on) doesn't have a geography that was conducive to this then there won't be any salt deposits. For instance, an island chain like Hawaii doesn't have salt deposits, because the land is made from a shield volcano. You can also avoid this by having lots of ground water to flush out ancient deposits (making some nice cave systems). $\endgroup$ – Samuel Aug 26 '15 at 16:03

Things like salt enjoyed status as currency not only because they were relatively rare, but also because they were immensely useful. Salt is highly desirable for preserving foods, which in ages before refrigeration (or the easy availability of ice) was really a matter of life or death. Having food "salted away" had a literal meaning then, even if it has evolved to become a figurative one today.

Salt also has many other uses, and is an important part of keeping your health in hot weather or when doing heavy labour (replenishing the salt you sweat away), even if the ancient people might not have been aware of the exact mechanisms. (Our ancestors were very observant, and not stupid at all).

So a highly useful substance which is portable, divisible and relatively rare all adds up to a valuable commodity in its own right, and valuable enough that it can be used as currency in the right circumstances (technically, you are actually bartering with it, but this was pretty much the case with any sort of currency until relatively recently, including precious metal coins, which were often melted down or shaved for the intrinsically valuable metals they contained).

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I'd say that for any thing to be a currency it has to have the useful properties of money:




4-cannot simply be produced, but is limited, such that the amount created in any period of time devalues the worth of money (as measured in other goods) by an amount that is insignificant enough to not be a factor in trading with it (ie. Inflation must be low).

Salt is easily obtainable. You would need for your world to have no access to salt water, and limited access to mines. Otherwise people could easily get salt. Sea water is about 3% salt, and it's easy to evaporate or boil off water to get the salt. It's even easier to get salt from mining, where you can literally dig out pure salt with a shovel.

Also salt is not durable. When it gets wet it disolves and will wash away. It's hard to believe a primitive society could always keep their money dry.

I think also think supply would have to be extremely limited for salt to be transportable. You don't want to have to trade a bucket of salt for a bucket of potatoes.

I don't think it believable to have salt as a currency unless the population was land locked and had no concept of salt water, and water was also scarce. The only useful property it has is divisibility.

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    $\begingroup$ Except I must say, that salt HAS been used as a currency and as a highly valued commodity in many other cultures through time... $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Aug 25 '15 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Being a valued commodity means nothing. Currency has to be the most marketable commodity. Roman soldiers may have traded their salt rations, but salt was never the most marketable commodity. $\endgroup$ – Secto Kia Aug 25 '15 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ You forgot one of the optional requirements: usefulness. Salt was very very useful for preserving food in the heat. It's easy to produce near the coast but useful everywhere. Because salt is useful and is being used all the time it can maintain it's value even if lots is being produced. $\endgroup$ – Murphy Aug 25 '15 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ The more something is consumed, the less likely it is to be a currency. This is because consumption is not linear with production, there is an elasticity of demand. The higher the amount of salt being consumed and produced, the more prone to wild swings in value salt would be. It would be much better to have something that isn't consumed at all and only produced at a very slow rate (ie. Gold/Silver etc.) $\endgroup$ – Secto Kia Aug 25 '15 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ My point was that you said salt can't be a currency, yet it has actually been used as such in our past, regardless of your feelings on the matter. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Aug 25 '15 at 15:32

I think what you want is a world that has very little land mass and limited technology to go under water. Think of the Kevin Costner film Water World. I know that they were surrounded with salt water. The problem is that they would not be able to desalinate the sea without some kind of energy to boil it. There is no wood, no dry fuel, only wind power with limited technology. Desalinating the sea by evaporation needs a large flat area. The small floating villages had little enough surface and would produce very limited amounts of salt. The open sea makes it more difficult by continually producing rain clouds wherever the air gets a bit too dry.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point regarding fuel; only the hottest areas can practically use solar evaporation alone. So a cold prairie or tundra would have a hard time producing salt (unless mines exist). But there would be less consumption, too, of people aren't sweating much and there's relatively abundant livestock or wild animals with salt-rich blood. $\endgroup$ – user243 Aug 26 '15 at 15:33

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