Evolution of Money: From Ivory Tusks to Heavy Metals

Money makes the world go round. This often used and abused saying could not have been coined in the olden days, when money as we know it did not exist and instead, other things of value were used to carry out buying and selling transactions. True enough, it is hard to imagine fat, well-fed cows making the world go round, they’re just too heavy to spin.

The earliest use of coins was traced to the Lydians (now in Turkey) in 600 BC while paper bills were used in China in 500 BC and which the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan adopted in his empire. But before coins and paper money, there are ample references in the annals of the business world which point to the clever use of things that ancient people used as money, how they made the business of exchanging things easier, faster and more importantly, fair to most sellers and buyers.

We rounded up not just the earliest forms of money that people used in the days of yore, we also included some bits of information on how and why these things became acceptable medium of exchange, why they failed to retain their importance in the succeeding years, and where they are in terms of popularity rankings today.

But before that, we will take you on a brief detour for basic lessons on money exchange that would make this read not just another typical list, but an engaging piece on the relationship between man and money, because money cannot spin the world alone, it needs man to throw it in all the right (and wrong) places.

Lesson #1: What prompted the need for “exchange”

Though all men are generally born with the same set of physiological attributes, how they are used overtime will yield varying and different levels of skills and capabilities. One becomes a better hunter, farmer, fisherman, blacksmith, weaver and all those basic skills. But all men have essentially the same set of basic needs – food, clothing, shelter.

As such, one skilled in hunting may have all the deer meat he can choke himself with, but does not have a warm woven sheet to protect him come wintertime. In the same way, a skilled weaver may wear all the stylish ponchos she can weave to be regarded as the Martha Stewart of the ancient world, but she cannot live to see that day if she does not have a safe and cozy cabin to put a roof over her head, since the yarn and silk cannot protect one from wild boars and harsh rains at night.

It is this man’s varying skills and different needs that prompted the exchange of goods and services. In the olden times, the medium used is basically what one has in abundance, hence, a pig for a blanket or barley for a one-room cabin. It was basically surviving, and over time, this evolved to bartering.

Lesson #2: Fair trade is as old as the caves

Even before the concept of money was refined, the idea of fair trade (good and ethical business practices today) came naturally to man, and business instinct which guided men to craft rules and practices to make sure they were not shortchanged were already at work even in primitive times. Thus came the need to come up with a form of valuation that would determine how much or how many one kind of commodity should be exchanged with another good of a different quantity (or mass and volume).

Is 20 live chickens in exchange for a sack of cotton a fair deal? The same goes for goods in exchange for services. Is it a good thing to accept a leg of lamb to make a set of bow and arrow for its owner? This ancient predicament of setting fair trade values gave birth to crude valuation tools and solutions, like counting and weighing.

Lesson #3: Majority rules in valuation

Because valuation and agreeing what’s the rightful equivalent of something to another especially when they are of a different kind are difficult tasks. They led to messy conflicts when various kinds of things were used as money.

In the case of exchanged goods, weight was the foremost value consideration, and as such, things (and even people) should be worth their weight in gold and other items. However, value designation was not always about demonstrated practicality, as there were things people agreed to be used as money by virtue of their symbolic, not practical or intrinsic, value.

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Lesson #4: Limited supply commands the highest price

We can make a delayed protest all we want upon knowing that sacks of grain were merely exchanged for a tin of tea, or coffee. But for people who have abundant supply of grains but where tea is a “rare, foreign luxury,” all is fair with the world. Or take salt for example.

Because mass production of salt were not yet discovered in ancient times, it was considered a prized commodity like gold. Cattles and lands can be bought with salt.

In his travel chronicles during the late 13th century, Marco Polo wrote about cakes of salt being produced in China’s salt springs at a value of 2 pence per cake, while 80 pieces that were stamped with the seal of the Khan were bought for a saggio of gold. In the 19th century, English explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton went to Harar in Africa where he noted that a man may purchase a slave for a “donkey-load of salt bars.”

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Whether the donkey was filled to the belly and below with salt bars, we do not know for sure. What’s clear is that today, bags of salt equal pennies, while gold, having been mined to the bones, became very rare and increased its value over time.

Lesson #5: Value of money differs in different places

Think of this concept as an explanation why different nations use different currencies. As civilization advances, people formed a more organized settlement based on affinity, relationships and common needs. They occupied places as their group “homes” or common areas, shared its resources (common wealth) and conducted trade among themselves and with other groups. These areas had different topographies and other characteristics, and so produced things that other areas did not or could not.

What one territory had in abundance became the primary medium of exchange, or the proto-money, of the people in that area. For instance, dwellers in South American regions used cacao beans while some American colonies used tobacco. Pacific islanders used shells and fish. Other things from rats (in insect-infested regions) to human beings (where slave hunting was practiced) were also used as proto-money.

Given our little review of the concept of trade, money and human nature, we can better understand why the following items made the list of things man used as money in the old times.

1. Animal horns, teeth and tusks

This set of ancient money was obviously valued for its practical purpose. While stones can be easily obtained and fashioned into crude weapons and cavemen machines, animal horns, teeth and tusks especially the big ones were used to create bladed tools and sharp weapons needed in hunting, making useful objects and most importantly for self-defense.

Today, killing animals senselessly (to get their body parts) is a crime. Elephant killings to get their ivory tusks have been outlawed already.

2. Animal hide and buck

This is another obvious ancient money item. Living so close to nature, people needed more warmth and better protection from what meadow beds and cold caves offered. They also needed clothing for their bodies and gears to function as bags and carriers. As such, cattle hides (which was the origin of the word buck, or back in the phrase American greenback), leather and even the softer sheepskin were highly valuable and used as money. Today, the use of animal hide for bags and accessories still commands a high price.

3. Grains and leaves

While the other items on the list are obvious money alternatives, grain and crops are elementary – they are main food sources. Barley, rice, corn and wheat are household staples, be it in ancient, medieval, renaissance, modern and future times.

In the meantime, leaves of certain plants like tea and tobacco as well as opium were also used in place of money. Prior to the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese used tea bricks just like wads of money in exchange for other items. Tobacco and opium were equally highly prized, their trading accelerated by the East India Company in the 1600s, along with salt, silk, and dye.

4. Seashells and beads

Beads in the form of seashells and cowrie shells are examples of ancient money that were accepted in trade because of their agreed value, not because they have intrinsic and practical uses. Cowrie shells, for instance, were used as royal ornaments and thus were highly prized in China, India, Thailand and West Africa.

The same was true in old New Jersey, where American Indians used stringed clamshells called Wampuns for money as late as 1859. From these shell money, we derived the phrase shelling out to mean taking money from one’s own pocket or purse to pay. Today, shells are merely used in decorative crafts.

5. Cacao and coffee beans


In the southern regions of unexplored Americas, the Aztecs indulged in abundance of the magical brown beans of cacao, while in ancient Africa and the Middle East, people stumbled upon the same magical wonders of kawa or coffee beans. Both beans produce elixir-like beverages highly sought-after for their invigorating and relaxing properties.

When invaders plundered the rich cacao and coffee-producing regions, they found large sacks and chestfuls of these wonder beans stored in protected barns, much like the modern banks of today. Now, while they do not function as legal tender anymore, rare cacao and coffee beans remain very expensive.

6. Fleece and blankets

From Greek mythology to early 20th century, fleece and its many forms like coats, sheets and blankets have been regarded as highly valuable. The golden fleece from the gold hair of the winged ram in the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts was told in the 8th Century BC. The high value of fleece gave rise to the term fleecing, or plucking money out of something profitable, like the old Golden Fleece Award given to US public officials who wasted the most public money while in office.

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Meantime, notable of the blankets used as currency is the Coast Salish nobility blanket in old Canada, where the money blanket tradition dates back some 1200 years. It was woven from mountain goat wool and took a “village” to spin it for the use of the Si’em or the rich nobles. Today, these blankets are relegated for ceremonial events, such as visits of royal guests.

7. Cattle

Cattle – entire living and mooing herds of cows are used to purchase parcels of land as early as 9000 BC. Such was the value of the herd. An individual cow on the other hand commands an equally high value, whether it is just a calf or a heifer (male cow). It was said that to own a cow is to survive in life. Cow’s monetary value stems from its variety of important uses – as livestock, as a work beast, for breeding other animals, for milk and therefore cheese and other dairy products, among others. Rarely was a cow exchanged to be used as food since a live cow is like owning a car back then, only the cow is the better of the two.

From the cow’s monetary value, we derived the phrase cash cow or milking cow in reference to someone or something that generates money or profit for other people.

8. Salt

Salt was an important mode of currency in ancient and medieval times, and was in great use to operate barter trades and import and export businesses then. The Egyptians traded cedar, glass and dye to Phoenicians who paid them with primarily salt and salted fish. The Celts were huge users of salt, growing rich by trading their salt in exchange for luxury items like wine from Greek and Roman businessmen.

Salt was so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid with salarium argentum, or rations of salt along with other items and some Roman money. The word “salary” originated from this practice. Up until the 20th century, salt was used as a medium of exchange in the poorest countries in Africa like Ethiopia. In Russia, after the Bolshevik Revolution, salt was used as a standard of value and a form of currency.

9. People

The use of people as money can be traced to the practice of slave trade as old as the history of man itself. Hunting did not involve animals alone, but also people of a different tribe, which were treated as slaves and worse, for other despicable ancient rituals.

Even when society has gained some level of civilization, slavery still persisted, where captured people were sold as slaves or made to work for the master’s convenience or for profit. Payment for a human slave can be animals, other humans, or most notably gold, hence the use of the phrase worth one’s weight in gold. Today, slavery is thought to be completely abolished, with Mauritania as the last place in the world to legally abolish slavery in 1981.

10. Metal


Nature has a way of messing things up. Just when the ancient folks have set up valuation systems and counting and weighing rules, the cows and pigs died of diseases, slabs of salt were melted by the rains, and typhoons and storms ruined the fruit and vegetable harvests. There’s got to be something that is more enduring and strong yet still commands value (either practical or aesthetic – remember the cowrie shells) that can be used as a major medium of exchange.

Enter precious, semi-precious and simply useful metals. Heavy metals are preferred. Gold and silver, bronze and copper, iron and ore.  They pass the practical and aesthetic tests, are strong yet convenient to carry around when cut.

Because of metal’s many uses such as hunting tools, defense weapons, for dwelling fixtures, for building and for making jewelry, and its flexible property (can be bended, hammered into sheets, cut and reshaped) made it a top replacement of choice for previous bulky and at times unwilling (cows and people) tools of trade. Its flexibility paved the way for metal to become the precursor of modern coins, hence money.

Precursor of modern coins

Because people find it troublesome to wait, what with all the metal weighing going on for every item to be traded with copper or ore, merchant leaders thought of creating metal lumps or sticks marked with a pre-assigned value, where other unmarked metals can be compared in value, either the same, half, a quarter or smaller.  These metal pieces were in turn marked with their values, and were re-used for other purchases.  Thus was born the first of the marked (minted) coins.

Do you know of other things that people used as money in the olden times?


Category: Financial News

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