Working The Salt Pans of Salinas Peru
Image by dachalan/
When most people think of the Incas, they think Machu Picchu, but there is much more to see in what is known as the Sacred Valley. The Inca carved thousands of small salt ponds, Salinas de Maras, or Inca salt pans, into the Peruvian Andes—with Cusco on one end and Machu Picchu on the other. Proving salt was and is still important.

How Salt Built Civilization

Arlo Starr

There must be something strangely sacred in salt. It is in our tears, and in the sea.

-Khalil Gibran

Imagine the highways of today as they once were: old trade routes leading to major centers such as Tenochtitlan, Chaco, Paquime and Cahokia. Our big Native families would be decked out in their finest, packing beautiful handicrafts to sell and trade. Of course, many of us still do this, but instead of traversing well-worn dirt trails in our moccasins, we are schlepping stuff in our Chevy trucks and rez rockets, stopping at gas stations to top off our tanks with grease and insulin along the way.

But in those days, many of our foods were carried with us. Not just pemmican and jerky, but other snacks prepared for easy travel. This is one of many reasons that salt became one of the most sought-after commodities during those times—it was a preservative. Not iodized sodium chloride like the table salt of today, but real, whole salt from the oceans and salt flats.

Salt was (and still is) necessary to preserve all kinds of food for longer periods of time—it is also necessary to tan hides, and to stabilize dyes. Without salt, meat rots quickly, which in the old days would have meant the entire kill would have to be eaten immediately. Without the ability to work hides, winters would have been unbearably cold and portable shelter would have taken a lot more effort to construct.

Most major centers in the Americas were established pre-contact based on where salt could be accessed. Probably the first such city that comes to mind is Salt Lake City, but also Cuzco, Syracuse, El Paso—really all major living areas—were dependent on access not just to water, but to salt. There is evidence of this in place names like Salina, Salinas, Rio Salado, Salt Bay, Salt Pool… you get the point.

Solar salt covers in Syracuse, New York around 1900. (Wikipedia)

In ancient Europe, salt and gold were traded evenly, pound for pound, and the English word “salary” refers to people being paid in salt. Among several Pueblo tribes, the responsibility to gather salt was, and in many cases still is, of utmost importance; a responsibility entrusted only to certain clans after the proper ceremonial preparations have been undertaken.

There are many salt songs throughout these continents because salt is sacred. Salt is in our sweat and our tears. It is in our hearts and blood, and in the oceans and veins of the earth.

Salt is necessary for heart function, joint function, metabolism, kidney function; without the correct balance of salt and minerals we would literally die. So why is it that nowadays when people think of salt, most often they think of “watching their salt intake” because of a health condition?

With heart disease being the number one cause of death among American Indians, it is important to moderate sodium intake and balance minerals and electrolytes. However, nowadays, the term “salt” has come to mean iodized sodium chloride, a substance that is all but void of nutrients. Before the era of industrialized food, when referring to salt people most often meant sea salt, a substance rich in minerals and micronutrients.

RELATED: Oklahoma City Indian Clinic Offers 5 Tips for a Healthy Heart

But that’s not all it meant 4,700 years ago in China, the Ben Cao Gang Mu recorded 40 different types of salt, including their preparation and extraction methods, along with medicinal uses.

Brine being boiled down to produce salt at the Xinhai Well in Zigong, China. (Wikipedia)

Surely there were more uses worldwide, many likely recorded in the ancient libraries that were burned to the ground by the Spanish and English in the 16th and 17th centuries. And surely our ancient ancestors had more uses for salt than most people alive today remember or are aware of.

Even though many major populations were centered around access to water and salt, not everyone lived near salt sources, so other ways had to be found to supplement minerals and balance electrolytes and nutrients. For many people indigenous to the Sonora Desert area, juniper, saltbush, and even dried beanstalks were burned and used as a salt or as seasonings. For Cherokees, various ashes were commonly used, and in some cases still are today. Wood ashes contain such minerals as calcium, manganese, iron, copper, zinc, sodium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus, but of course these nutrients vary depending on the type of wood (or more common among Cherokees, the type of root or nut) used.

For instance, the ash of the hickory nut is used to prepare hominy and cornmeal, or for seasoning, and as an added bonus, for mineral content. Archaeological records in the Eastern Woodlands show masses of burned hickory nutshells as far back as 8,700 BCE—nearly 11,000 years ago.

Wood ash is still used commonly today to soak whole dried corn to make it easier to remove the skin, but this process also infuses the cornmeal with all kinds of trace minerals and micronutrients. It also helps the body process calcium, to balance sodium and potassium and the minerals that it needs.

To Make Cornmeal With Wood Ash

Soak 4 cups of dried heirloom flour corn in water overnight.

The next day, add 3 TBSP of ashes to one and a half quarts of boiling water, stirring to dissolve the particles.

Add in the corn and cook until the skin comes off (about an hour), stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and strain off the water, rinse 2-3 times with cool water. At this point you should be able to easily wipe off the corn skin with your fingers, and rinse it off again. Now the corn can be run through a grinder or food processor to make cornmeal. It is of course possible to make cornmeal without the addition of the ashes, but this process infuses the corn with minerals and nutrients, and enhances the protein and calcium content of your heirloom corn. Plus, it tastes better!

Gravel Root/Joe Pye Weed Salt

As recently as the childhoods of many Cherokee first language speakers alive today, Gravel Root (AKA Sweet Scented Joe Pye Weed, Unesdali Anvsadvsgi, or Queen of the Meadow) has been burned and used as a salt. It is high in Vitamin C and said to be beneficial to the kidneys and bladder.

A naturally formed salt crystal. (Wikipedia)

King Solomon’s Seal Salt

The roots of King Solomon’s Seal were ground up and used as a salt for flavoring, at least as recently as the 1800s. It is important to be able to correctly identify the plant, as there are some varieties that look similar and are poisonous.

Hickory Nut Salt

Large chunks of hickory nutshell are a byproduct of making Kanutchee, or hickory nut soup. It also burns easily, so can be used to start fires after all the Kanutchee balls are made. The ashes from burning either the tree or the shells make an excellent lye for cornmeal, or sprinkled on food as a seasoning.

Hickory nuts are high in B vitamins, magnesium, thiamine, good fats, and phosphorus, all of which contribute to energy and healthy muscles. It’s no wonder then that hickory is considered strong medicine for stickball players.

Ripe hickory nuts are seen here ready to fall off the tree. (Wikipedia)


How ironic that industrialized foods promise to bring nutrition and precision in chemistry and biology, yet more evidence keeps demonstrating how they are making us sick. Meanwhile, indigenous food systems around the world were (and are) far more effective at balancing minerals and nutrients naturally. Just as being around the sacred fire keeps our hearts in balance, by adding a piece of the fire to our food, our bodies find balance.

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shotwell77's picture
Submitted by shotwell77 on
Great article, Arlo! Sequoyah used to have a salt works on his land in present-day west Arkansas.