When – and why – did people first start using money?
Sometimes you run across a grimy, tattered dollar bill that seems like it’s been around since the beginning of time. Assuredly it hasn’t, but the history of human beings using cash currency does go back a long time – 40,000 years.
Scientists have tracked exchange and trade through the archaeological record, starting in Upper Paleolithic when groups of hunters traded for the best flint weapons and other tools. First, people bartered, making direct deals between two parties of desirable objects.
Money came a bit later. Its form has evolved over the millennia – from natural objects to coins to paper to digital versions. But whatever the format, human beings have long used currency as a means of exchange, a method of payment, a standard of value, a store of wealth and a unit of account.
As an anthropologist who’s made discoveries of ancient currency in the field, I’m interested in how money evolved in human civilization – and what these archaeological finds can tell us about trade and interaction between far-flung groups.
Why do people need currency?
There are many theories about the origin of money, in part because money has many functions: It facilitates exchange as a measure of value; it brings diverse societies together by enabling gift-giving and reciprocity; it perpetuates social hierarchies; and finally, it is a medium of state power. It’s hard to accurately date interactions involving currency of various kinds, but evidence suggests they emerged from gift exchanges and debt repayments.
Chinese shell money from 3,000 years ago. PHGCOM, CC BY-SA
Objects that occurred rarely in nature and whose circulation could be efficiently controlled emerged as units of value for interactions and exchange. These included shells such as mother-of-pearl that were widely circulated in the Americas and cowry shells that were used in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. Native copper, meteorites or native iron, obsidian, amber, beads, copper, gold, silver and lead ingots have variously served as currency. People even used live animals such as cows until relatively recent times as a form of currency.
The Mesopotamian shekel – the first known form of currency – emerged nearly 5,000 years ago. The earliest known mints date to 650 and 600 B.C. in Asia Minor, where the elites of Lydia and Ionia used stamped silver and gold coins to pay armies.
The discovery of hordes of coins of lead, copper, silver and gold all over the globe suggests that coinage – especially in Europe, Asia and North Africa – was recognized as a medium of commodity money at the beginning of the first millennium A.D. The wide circulation of Roman, Islamic, Indian and Chinese coins points to premodern commerce (1250 B.C. – A.D. 1450).
Coinage as commodity money owes its success largely to its portability, durability, transportability and inherent value. Additionally, political leaders could control the production of coins – from mining, smelting, minting – as well as their circulation and use. Other forms of wealth and money, such as cows, successfully served pastoral societies, but weren’t easy to transport – and of course were susceptible to ecological disasters.
Money soon became an instrument of political control. Taxes could be extracted to support the elite and armies could be raised. However, money could also act as a stabilizing force that fostered nonviolent exchanges of goods, information and services within and between groups.
Throughout history money has acted as a record, a memory of transactions and interactions. For instance, medieval Europeans widely used tally sticks as evidence for remembering debt.