The dollar bill is the most popular currency in the world today, but it wasn’t there until a few centuries ago. Today, the world has light and highly portable currencies whose value can be determined without having to physically hold the money. There is actually more virtual money today than the value of existing notes and coins, which shows just how evolved currency has become. Imagine living in ancient Mesopotamia and having to trade your goat for a tin of salt! Some civilizations actually had more interesting forms of money. The Chinese one was especially dangerous as you could use it to kill someone; Literally!
In China, around 2500 years ago, if you needed to buy a goat, all you had to do was deliver special knives with encryptions that were believed to be worth the goat. It is not clear how the money currency came to be, but most relics have been discovered in the Shandong province. Some say that a certain prince ran out of money to pay his soldiers and so advised them to use their knives as a form of currency and so the dangerous currency came to exist. The knife currency was widely circulated in most cities around china from 850 to 255 BC. It was the type of currency you really didn’t want anywhere near your pockets.
Before the dollar, wampum bills had the privilege of being the esteemed American currency. When the Europeans came to America for the first time, they didn’t find any common currency, but the native Indians valued their wampum beads, so it was soon accepted as currency. The value of Wampum lay in the difficult process of creating them as it involves combining special shells of a snail called the Whelk and a clam called the quahog. Drilling through the shells and shaping them was hard and also dangerous, meaning these beads were rare, and a person with many of them had to be a very rich person. Industrial production, however, increased the supply of beads leading to its devaluation.
In the Solomon Islands, the use of dolphin teeth as money dates back centuries, and that habit hasn’t gone away. Now, on the Solomon Islands, dolphin teeth are rare because they are only available after local dolphin hunters kill a dolphin, which is no easy task when you are still using machetes, clubs, and knives for hunting dolphins. The teeth are also easy to transport, and everyone somehow knows how to differentiate dolphin teeth from other teeth. This “money” is what many locals still resort to whenever conventional currency, including the local dollar, are in decline. The teeth are especially common ornaments at weddings and funerals.
Cowries were probably the dollar of the world a few centuries ago as they were used almost everywhere as a form of exchange. Cowrie shells were used as currency in almost all continents from China to Africa. The type and value of the shells depended on how rare the snail that bore the shell was. In China, shells were used as currency from as early as 3000 years ago, and in most places, the term money is closely related to the name for shells. The same happened in Africa, where the British government even oversaw the shipment of large quantities of shells to West Africa to be used in exchange for slaves way into the 19th century when the slave trade was finally abolished. Alongside dolphin teeth in the Solomon Islands, shells are also used in some places to batter commodities.
Yes, your regular table salt wasn’t a luxury commodity a few years back as it is today. The word salary originated from the word salt as most people considered salt as a worthy form of payment, and even Roman soldiers were paid in salt. It was a major part of the trade in all ancient civilizations from at least 6050BC, meaning there is no part of human history that doesn’t involve salt. It is believed that the Phoenicians and the Mediterranean civilizations had a quantity of salt as the accepted price for almost every commodity from an egg to a slave. The production of salt was also restricted to a few salt experts and controlled by each government to ensure that counterfeiters didn’t devalue the highly soluble currency.
The Rai Stones
Rai stones are the form of currency no one could steal. Not just because of their sizes but also because everyone knew who owned which stone, so unless you were the known owner, stealing one wouldn’t help you. Some people now believe that they were the world’s first bitcoin. The huge stone wheels were carved from lime rock in the Palau Islands then shipped across the ocean on boats, probably one of the hardest tasks considering this was pre-colonial Micronesia.
If the rock didn’t sink the boat during transport and probably didn’t break after offloading, it would be moved expertly onto a chosen spot on the Island of Yap where it would stay forever. The owner was always known, and their net worth, valued in the rock could be used to trade commodities on the island.
Ever dreamt of paying for your pizza with a couple of teabags? Well, you should as well have a few decades ago in Siberia. Tea leaves are still very valuable in many parts of the world but probably not scarce enough to be used as currency. Now, prior to the Ming Dynasty in China, tea bricks, also known as compressed tea, was almost as valuable as salt in the Mediterranean. The value was different for many kinds of tea, including black tea, green tea, and fermented tea.
There were special places where the most valuable bricks came from, especially India and other parts of the Tibetan regions. The bricks were used as a form of currency for centuries well into the 20th century through the 1ST World War, where some soldiers also traded the bricks for other items since cash was in short supply. It was used as a currency even in Siberia until WWII.
Peppercorn or black pepper, as we know it today, once became so scarce in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia that it was used as a currency. Pepper was used as currency in Greece in the 4th century and continued to be used in Europe until less than a century ago. It is believed that some people actually used black pepper, then known as black gold, to secure loans from banks. The demand was so high that workers in peppermint factories around Europe were given pants without pockets to prevent stealing. The only source of the product was the Indian Region of Malabar, which explains its scarcity. It was also highly sought after for its flavour and medicinal values.
Now, London winters can get pretty cold, and your regular woollen coat may just not be arm enough or better still, a coat covered in red squirrel pelts would look classier. The main source of these pelts was Scandinavia and parts of Northern Russia, where a whole industry developed around hunting these poor rodents. The values were clearly stated and always increased during the winter as more people sought after the priced fur. It is alleged that a stack of 50 pelts could get you a whole cow in some parts of Europe, proving just how precious they were.
If you were worried about knife coins from China, then you haven’t heard of arrowhead coins from Northern Greece. In the Celtic regions, if you didn’t have money, a small bronze cast arrowhead would do just fine. The arrowheads were in high demand across all the regions of the Mediterranean. The smiths of the black sea regions were famed as maestros of the arrowheads, with each artisan signing their arrowhead using their special signatures, which increased their value over the years. These were probably not as dangerous as the knife coins, but they were still dangerous. Over time, arrowhead coins evolved into round coins, which influenced the future shape of money in the other regions.