Africa

Salt Slab

Sahara Desert

Solid slab of salt, goat hide
20th century

Dimensions:
41 ¾ in. by 18 ½ in.
106 cm by 47 cm

Price: on request

Western Africa
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The salt culture and trade in the Sahara
Long ago, oceans covered the vast Sahara, but they dried up, leaving salt behind. Winds brought more salt crystals from living oceans, but no natural force removed salt. Sparse desert rains still evaporate too fast to wash salt away.
Because salt is essential for health, the Sahara's salt is probably the most valuable item Tuareg caravans carry south. In hot, dry regions, people and animals lose salt through sweat. Unless they eat more salt, they risk fatigue, cramps or even death.
Salt is also used to preserve and flavor food. In fact, many people who live in the Sahara and its southern border, the Sahel, use different types of salt like spices in recipes.
In places rich with salt deposits, families used to teach their children the skills needed to obtain salt. First a worker poured water into large holes to dissolve the salt in the soil. As the water began to dry, it became covered with a thin crust of salt crystals, like a sheet of ice. A worker broke this crust over and over again so more water could evaporate. When the remaining water became a thick, salty brine, it was pressed into flat cakes, then dried in the sun.
Each salt slab was then carefully wrapped before it was loaded onto a camel. A camel could carry between four and six 30 kgs.(60 pounds)-slabs of salt across the desert.
The main marketplace for salt in the Sahara area was Mopti in Mali.
In modern-day Mali, trucks tend to replace the camel caravans; therefore such salt slabs are meant to disappear in the very near future, the whole process of production/transportation/trade getting increasingly mechanized.