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Today we take salt for granted and we even dare to spread it on streets but salt was a critical element for human life up until not so long ago. Salt production was probably in many ways the world’s first industry; powerful cities and sometimes entire empires rose and fell with salt production, its commerce and its shifting routes. Significant religions, like ancient Egyptian’s, revolved around the availability of salt from Lake Natron and the discovery of its properties in mummification. Salt was so precious that people were occasionally paid in salt (a salary) and for the same reason it was the first commodity to be taxed, ultimately playing a critical role in determining the very nature of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

In my world (an alternate future Earth, same world as here and here), the now closed off Mediterranean Sea is the Mediterranean Waste, a gigantic and utterly alien salt flat 3500 mt below sea level. Needless to say, salt is the most common resource in the continent, and religious sentiments developed around the white, sparkling abyss.

How differently would the societies be if salt was a widespread commodity?

How will the economic relationship between those who have access to this infinite salt mine and those who live in relatively salt poor areas evolve?

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    $\begingroup$ Not really the point here but here's my explanation: basically the real difference here is extreme depth. This salt flat is thousands mt deep and essentially self-contained. It already happened in the past during the so called Messinian Salinity Crisis event; what paleoclimatologists discovered is that surprisingly land around the basin behaved as a high plateau and wasn't affected by the extreme conditions on the bottom of the basin; in some cases complex interaction between air masses actually INCREASED PRECIPITATIONS on the "plateau". $\endgroup$ – JRover Apr 12 '16 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to learn more on the subject i linked a paper explaining this phenomenon in the other question but here's the link again. Conclusions start from line 599 in the paper. $\endgroup$ – JRover Apr 12 '16 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, didn't know someone had done a simulation on that. Oddly, while the language was complex the actual science really wasn't. Since water coming into the basin doesn't vanish into a black hole it mostly results in precipitation when the winds rise at the edges of the basin. Climate is actually more arid but with more rain... LOL (Except Sahara due to increased monsoon.) I am still having issues imagining the actual climate and population patterns. So I can't still think the distance from the basin people would mostly be. Along rivers, maybe? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 12 '16 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ To understand how altitude would affect climate in this context think of Ethiopian Highlands (1500 mt plateau) and its close proximity to the hellish Afar Triangle (-155 mt). Despite them being adjacent one another there's a drop of + 1600 meters from the highlands to the triangle with radical different climates (tropical monsoon vs extreme version of hot desert climate). People can live and farm a very fertile land at just 30 km from a scorching desert of salt and sulfur. $\endgroup$ – JRover Apr 12 '16 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ The general principle is the same, the problem is that in this scenario rains depend on the winds and unlike Ethiopian highlands there is no simple, predictable monsoon pattern. I am sure the basin would have a huge impact on the winds, especially in areas very close to it, but I have no idea about the details, and the simulations in the paper you linked don't have the resolution to help with that. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 13 '16 at 0:55
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Deceptively simple question but actually rich in cool and unexpected outcomes. Let’s start by saying in part you already unknowingly answered your own question: ancient societies would have treated salt as modern ones do. Salt wouldn’t have been precious, and people could have used it in new “wasteful” ways. Before starting anyway be aware that “salt” is a very generic term chemically speaking, but given that you gave a very specific context (an evaporated sea) I take it as meaning evaporite minerals, exactly the kind of stuff you’d find on the bottom of (at least partially) evaporated sea along with “common salt” (sodium chloride). Now let’s see the consequences of a relatively inexpensive and easy exploitation of these evaporite deposits.

MORE WAR, EXPLORATION AND COMMERCE

The most important consequence here would have been IMPROVED FOOD PRESERVING, which is maybe the most appreciated characteristic of common salt. The ability to prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi or other micro-organisms from the early stages of society would have impacted settlement patterns. Being able to conserve food in a cheap and efficient way would allow for new areas to be settled that are not on a natural channel of transport (e.g. a river) that may have otherwise not been settled. New unpopulated areas would be settled earlier and better: exploration can potentially mean laying out new commercial routes or faster colonization by a possible salt empire, especially considering the immense utility of preserved food in feeding a marching army (think of food rations in modern armies). In brief: improved contact (benign or not) between distant civilizations.

MORE AND BIGGER CITIES (but frailer early societies)

The possibility to conserve food for longer periods of time means that goods can travel farther from the farm and selling can occur on a wider scale than a local one. Think of how the invention of the refrigerator made possible to ship perishable food products long distances: same but in a smaller scale. Without food preserving land for agriculture must be necessarily evenly distributed across a populated area, but with cheap means of preservation a fertile small portion of the existing land can produce food for all the others and sell the surplus in a wider area. This mean professional farmers which in turn mean more people that can do other things other than farming to survive (e.g. merchants, smiths, scribes, philosophers, etc.) more cities and more complex societies. All of this actually happened in real world, but with an easier access to salting it will happen earlier.

Without a mean to preserve food your diet and health is affected heavily by the seasons and what could be grown relatively close to your region, but with salting accessible to everyone, population will no longer be restricted by these limitations. As well as changing the goods purchased at the market, the ability to store these foods for extended periods of time will led to an increase in leisure time, because without accessible food preservation, people would have to shop on a daily basis for the supplies needed for their meals. Note that increasing population will led to an increasing demand for agricultural products, which has to be met through expansion, improved technology and inventions or the civilization will collapse under its own population pressure (many evaporites have fertilizing properties, so this can be of some help, we’ll see that later). All this trade and concentration of farming activities can have serious downsides though: harvesting failures, famines and epidemics will travel quicker and will have more significant consequences. Empires, at least at early stages of civilization, will rise and fall abruptly.

Another downside is that all this sodium consumption can led to severe health problems (that can indeed balance excessive population growth though).

FERTILE SOILS?

Somewhat related to the previous topic. I’m aware that nitrates obtained from many evaporites are excellent fertilizers. Gypsum for example was regarded almost as a miraculous fertilizer in the 19th century and even a war was fought over it. I’m no chemist nor agronomist though so I’ll leave this one to experts.

EXCELLENT CHEAP MATERIALS FOR ARCHITECTURE AND ARTS

With all that “salt”, a lot of it can be used for artistic or masonry purposes. For example during late antiquity in Rome and later in medieval Germany many churches had selenite used in for panes in windows as a cheap and beautiful way to replace glass. Gypsum blocks can also be very useful in architecture, being a massive lightweight building material suitable for fire-resistant non-load bearing interior walls. Furthermore gypsum is a key component of plaster which has many uses in architecture and art. Speaking of art, another material commonly found in evaporite deposits is alabaster which is a superb material for sculpture and it was also used in architecture especially in the ancient world before steel was developed, when its relative softness made it much easier to carve than other stones. Also, salt is important in pottery in the process of glazing, and plaster is excellent for casting.

Selenite windowalabaster sculpture

CIVILIZATION HAS POTENTIAL TO EASILY SPREAD NORTH (or up a mountain chain)

All these excellent insulating materials mean that theoretically buildings can be heated more efficiently and civilization can advance more easily in harsher climates, especially if one can afford to melt snow by spreading a lot of salt around.

BUT (speaking of architecture) CONCRETE INVENTION WILL BE somewhat HINDERED

Just a wild guess but in a context in which salt spreading for melting purposes is invented before concrete, the latter has a few chances to be invented and extensively used since salt is reinforced concrete’s worst enemy: we can afford to use it in modern world just because we spend a lot of money in building maintenance but this is still really an unbelievable architectonic nonsense.

CLEANER PEOPLE

Salt is very important in the process of manufacturing soap. To make it obscenely simple soap is made up by fat or tallow and alkaline salts. The salts were the expensive part so soap was a thing for riches. But in this salty utopia soap is a cheap byproduct of animal processing, since a vast variety of salts can be found with relatively little effort.

MINING SALT WILL SPEED UP INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Mining salt was one of the most expensive, laborious and dangerous of operations, due to rapid dehydration caused by constant contact with the salt (both in the mine passages and scattered in the air as salt dust), among other problems borne of accidental excessive sodium intake. While salt is now plentiful, until the Industrial Revolution it was difficult to come by, and salt mining was often done by slave or prison labor. This is obviously not true in a society in which salt is found at surface level and is also nearly infinite. There will probably be professional salt miners and refiners and the industry will be extremely well developed. And there are other substances you can come by while mining salt, such as sulfur, natural gases and even petroleum (trapped under salt slabs by the their impermeable nature). All of them are important substances for technological development and their discovery and exploitation will probably come earlier than in real world because of all this salt mining activity. Obviously all this line of reasoning assumes you can access a 3500 mt deep incandescent basin without consequences, which I anyway doubt (see later, An Impossible Utopia).

Days since last incident: 0.1

EVEN MORE MINING (AND WAR)

Did you know Nitrate minerals are often mined for use in the production of lethal explosives?

AFTERLIFE WOULD NOT BE THE SAME AGAIN

Unlike real world salt would not be considered a “sacred substance” (but I guess that a nearly endless salt desert will be regarded with a certain reverence, same way as sand is not a sacred substance but a desert can be a holy place). I don’t know if this is necessarily true since according to gospels Jesus, who lived in a geographical area plenty of salt, still used salt a metaphor to indicate something very precious (but that can be cultural contamination). Sure thing, sooner or later primitive societies around this sparkling abyss will discover the important mummification properties of salt, and not unlike how ancient Egyptian did with Natron Valley and the substance which goes by the same name, mummification and body preservation in the afterlife could become an important part of their religious consciousness. Saltmen mummies from Iran

THINGS CAN GO REALLY WRONG

In a certain sense the civilization depicted up to this point is an unbalanced society in which the access to a “modern” comfort such as mass food preservation is unmatched by other solutions to manage population growth such as medicine and fast travel, although the former can supposedly benefit from the salts mining industry (e.g. soap). Primitive societies will be confronted early with the problem of overpopulation, and the ratio between resources and mouths to feed is very reminiscent of the story of a people who loved to build giant stone heads. Factors like increased interaction between different civilizations, war over resources (with explosives!) and population booms due to better diet and better hygiene will all play a role in a fast changing and complex society. And let's not talk about salt tornadoes ravaging the countryside. However all things considered I think that if certain conditions are met it can find its balance. If only this wasn’t…

AN IMPOSSIBLE UTOPIA

The amazing advantages which came from having an endless reserve of useful minerals is almost too incredible to be real. I know this is not part of the question, but since you provided a specific setting I think it's fair to point out its glitches. The real problem with this scenario is that the conditions which are to be met to make this unbelievably vast salt flat possible will at the same time make human colonization impossible. Not only the intolerable climate will hinder any colonization attempt, but there will be no fishing industry and no farming; in short, nothing to use the salt for. Sure, all the other important properties will be of some value, but the impossible climate will render salt mining in this area as expensive and dangerous as in real world, essentially canceling out the advantages.

enter image description here

EDIT: I saw others pointed out the same criticality and you readily linked a scientific paper which directly addresses the topic. I’m amazed at the complexity of climate. And as naive as it may sound, I really didn’t consider the extensive mountain chains which surround the Mediterranean Sea. If I understood correctly the paper, you can legitimately have cool, even humid (!) climate on land above sea level while still having an arid extreme environment below. That’s amazing. I suppose that this is made possible by the fact that this dry pit of hell was not caused by climate but rather by extreme depth. Fascinating, thanks for making me discover this unbelievable phenomenon.

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  • $\begingroup$ Now THAT'S an answer!! Thank you very much, that was exactly the kind of answer i was hoping for! Many pieces of advice and suggestions here! $\endgroup$ – JRover Apr 13 '16 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ Glad it was helpful! Sorry for the occasional English mistakes, i'm not a native English speaker, hope everything's clear $\endgroup$ – TomMrv Apr 14 '16 at 21:36
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This already exists.

The Dead Sea

If you wanted salt from the dead sea all you needed was a hammer, a shovel and a bucket.

It would be most sensible to look at the real world effects of the dead sea on commerce back then.

Salty Dead sea map

Salt is only valuable to the extent that it's rare. Without the Mediterranean sea most of southern europe and northern africa would be an inhospitable desert. It doesn't matter how much salt you have if you don't have fresh water and food.

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  • $\begingroup$ but by the same token, it doesn't matter how much fresh water and food you have if you don't have the requisite salt for making beef jerky and funyuns. Just something to think about. $\endgroup$ – coburne Apr 12 '16 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering, but be aware that salt isn’t gold so it isn't precious (just) because of its rarity but also and especially for its inherent utility (food preservation, dietary requirements, as a component for fertilizers, used in pottery and soaps manufacturing etc.) so there will always be salt trading even if its cost is ridiculously low and that's was the point of my question. $\endgroup$ – JRover Apr 12 '16 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ For the climate part, i already explained it in the comments so i'll just drop a link here (in short: dry mediterranean = rain on Italy, strange as it may sound) $\endgroup$ – JRover Apr 12 '16 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ Just FYI: not all salts are the same. The dead sea is overwhelmingly not sodium chloride ("table salt") but rather other salts, like magnesium bromide. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Apr 12 '16 at 16:13

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