Authors are usually good at considering the shiny resources like gold and silver or the iron needed for making the much beloved suits of plate mail, but those are only a few of the resources that shape civilization. If you really want to bring your world alive, consider other resources that are just as vital but often overlooked. More of these exist than can be counted, but I’ll give you a head start with five that are both extremely important and rarely discussed in fiction.
Nowadays we don’t tend to think about salt very much because it is so readily available. In winter we might get annoyed by how salted roads make our cars rust, and some of you have probably heard that “salary” comes from the old Latin word for “salt,” but it’s easy to forget how vital salt is.
For one thing, people die without salt. More specifically, people die without sodium, which is one half of the sodium-chloride bond that makes up salt. Sodium deficiency leads to all kind of nasty symptoms – like seizures and loss of muscle control, such fun! Salt is also an important preservative in settings without reliable refrigeration because it dries food out, slowing the growth of bacteria.* Finally, salt tastes good. Never underestimate how much humans will do for something that tastes good.
Coastal civilizations have a natural advantage in salt production because of all that salty water. In warmer climates, salt can be produced just by leaving seawater to evaporate and collecting the white crystals left behind. When more salt is needed, coastal peoples can increase their production by boiling sea water to hasten the evaporation process. This requires a lot of fuel though, which is why the king of salt production will always be mining. That’s right, “salt mine” isn’t just a figure of speech. Salt runs in veins through rock just like gold or silver.*
The salt trade has always been an important facet of the global economy, all the way back to when humans first figured out they could exchange one commodity for another. Civilizations without ready access to salt will pay a premium for it, largely because they have no other choice. At the same time, areas with rich salt deposits will be extremely valuable, just the sort of place two rival countries might go to war over.
Once war has started, denying the enemy access to salt will be a common tactic. It’s hard for the other guy’s soldiers to fight when they’re suffering all the symptoms of sodium deficiency. And if the belligerents are feeling particularly nasty, they can sow salt into the enemy’s fields to destroy food production. This won’t render land unusable forever, because salt will eventually wash out of the soil, but it can certainly ruin harvests.
At first glance, pepper looks like salt’s less useful cousin. After all, humans don’t need pepper to live, and it doesn’t have any preservative qualities; it just tastes good.* But oh how important that taste is. We have ready access to most spices these days, but at many points in history, the pepper shaker represented an incredible luxury.
Pepper is also much harder to come by than salt. It only grows in very warm, tropical climates, and there’s no way to mine it out of the ground.* In real history, pepper production was limited even further because the piper nigrum plant, which peppercorns are harvested from, is native to only a small area of southern India.
If something similar happens in your setting, then the people who live wherever pepper naturally grows won’t be eager to see it spread. They’ll recognize the value of controlling the production of this spicy goodness and want to keep it for themselves.
If your setting is anything like the real world, then demand for pepper will be incredibly high. First it will only be a luxury for the rich, but the moment regular people get their hands on it, they won’t be able to get enough. At first, this will mean long trade routes, with merchants able to set their own prices. Commerce-based civilizations will rise and fall on the availability of pepper, and people will go to extreme lengths to find new trade routes.
Pepper will also serve as motivation for conquest. Whenever you have a resource in such high demand that can only be produced in a few areas, the powerful will seek to control it. Pepper-hungry nations outside the growing zone will look to their spice-rich neighbors and wonder if a little bloody war is such a high price to pay for that black powder that makes week-old mutton edible.
Editor’s Note: This post originally contained the myth that pepper was used to cover up the taste of rotting meat. It was never actually used for that.
As metals go, tin isn’t very charismatic. It isn’t shiny, and there aren’t any vital tools made primarily from tin. Even tin cans are mostly steel. But when clever metalsmiths in your setting mix tin together with copper in the right ratios, they’ll get something new: bronze.
Bronze is incredibly useful to low-tech civilizations. Iron requires fairly advanced technology to smith, but bronze has a relatively low melting point and is easy to shape. It was used for nearly everything, from cooking pots to swords. There’s a reason it was called the Bronze Age, after all.
While tin is only part of what makes bronze,* it is by far the rarest component. Copper is relatively easy to find, but it’s not much use without tin. As with other resources, this means bronze-dependent civilizations will build highly advanced trade networks to acquire tin. But this unassuming metal adds a new wrinkle: what happens if it runs out?
Because of tin’s scarcity, shortages are a real possibility. This can be a huge problem for a civilization that’s already become dependent on bronze. Imagine what happens in your Bronze Age setting when the tin mines and supply routes dry up. Everyone uses bronze, and now that metal is impossible to replace.* At first, people will try to make their tools last longer, and then they’ll move on to recycling old bronze. But if those measures aren’t enough, another country’s stockpile of bronze will start to look really tempting.
If a tin scarcity is bad enough, and the technology to smith iron isn’t available, it could even cause the collapse of a Bronze Age civilization. Remember that next time you need a reason for the apocalypse to visit your setting.
While not as central to American culture as coffee, tea is by far the world’s most popular drink besides water, and it’s not hard to see why. Tea is delicious,* comes in nearly infinite varieties, and has caffeine. Caffeine is readily available to us now, but there was a time when a drug that could give us a little more energy in the face of fatigue was considered magical. Another benefit of tea is that people who drink tea are more likely to boil their water, reducing the spread of disease.
Like pepper, tea is only native to a few places in the real world. More than that, tea cultivation is a complex and difficult craft. The wild tea plant is nothing like the beverage we enjoy today, and methods of turning raw leaves into a tasty drink have evolved tremendously over the centuries. This proved to be a problem when Europe, especially Britain, couldn’t get enough Chinese tea. The British were drinking so much tea that they were quickly running out of silver to pay for it with.
And of course, the Chinese weren’t about to just hand over the secrets of tea making that they’d spent so long developing. Naturally, the British
respected Chinese law launched an international espionage operation to steal both the secrets of tea and the tea plants themselves. Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy the British thirst for tea. Despite their name, the Opium Wars were largely fought over tea. Specifically, they were fought because Britain wanted to trade opium for tea and the Chinese government wouldn’t allow it.*
Tea is so valuable that it’s often used as currency. When dried and pressed into bricks, tea will last a long time, and it is easy to divide into smaller denominations by carving slices off the brick. And because literally everyone in the world likes tea, merchants can always be sure of its value.
So whether the people in your setting are only just discovering tea or they’ve been guzzling down the stuff for centuries, keep in mind all the factors that go into each morning cup.
Wood literally grows on trees, so how important can it be? Sure, we use it to build houses, but trees are everywhere, so that doesn’t sound very important. But you see, it turns out that different kinds of trees produce lumber that’s useful for different products.
Take the English longbow.* While lumber of all types is used to make bows, this particular type of bow is best made with yew wood. Even though yew is native to England, there often wasn’t enough to meet the demand, as the longbow was a powerful weapon of war. If England hadn’t had access to trade networks across Europe, they might not have gotten the yew they needed to make the longbows that were such an advantage in the Hundred Years War against France.
Ship building is another area where access to timber becomes vital. To build ships, particularly sailing ships, you need a lot of wood, and it needs to be sturdy if you don’t want the ship to fall apart around you. Lumber that is used for ships also has to resist moisture, for obvious reasons.
Historically, teak was often the lumber of choice to build ships, and seafaring powers launched wars to secure access to teak. Beyond the quality of the lumber, quantity was a problem as well. A single warship could take hundreds of acres worth of timber to build. When wooden navies went to war, replacing sunken ships required even more lumber, and the only way to get that lumber was often to take it from neighbors. You can guess how easy that made it to stop wars from spreading.
Timber will be even more important if your story is set somewhere without ready access to brick or stone. Structures of all kinds will need to be built from wood, which significantly increases the chances of massive fires. Places where wood is the primary building material will also have very few old ruins, because wooden buildings just don’t last that long when they fall into disuse.
These five are just a few of the valuable resources that writers rarely think about. To list all of them is probably impossible, but this should get you started. While you don’t want your setting to come across like an accountant’s list of commodities, thinking about what resources drive your civilizations can help them become more lifelike. Shiny metals and glittering gems get enough attention already, so make your setting stand out by focusing on resources that are just as vital but get less appreciation.
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