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All About Money

You occasionally come across a dirty, tattered dollar bill that appears to have been around since the dawn of time. Without a doubt, it hasn’t, yet the history of humans using cash currency dates back 40,000 years.

Beginning in the Upper Paleolithic, when groups of hunters exchanged for the best flint weapons and other artifacts, scientists have traced exchange and commerce through the archaeological record. People used to barter, establishing direct deals between two parties in exchange for valuable items.

Money arrived later. Its appearance has changed throughout millennia, progressing from natural things to coins, paper, and finally digital equivalents. Humans have historically used currency as a means of commerce, a method of payment, a standard of worth, a store of wealth, and a unit of account, regardless of the format.

We are interested in how money arose in human civilization – and what these archaeological finds might tell us about commerce and contact between far-flung people – as an anthropologist who’s discovered ancient currency in the field.

Why do humans require money?

Money serves numerous functions, including facilitating transactions as a measure of worth, bringing diverse societies together through gift-giving and reciprocity, perpetuating social hierarchies, and eventually, serving as a tool of governmental authority. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact period of interactions involving various types of cash, but evidence suggests they arose through gift exchanges and debt repayments.

Rarely occurring objects whose circulation could be efficiently regulated developed as units of value for interactions and trade. Shells like mother-of-pearl, which were widely used in the Americas, and cowry shells, which were utilized in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia, were among them. As a currency, native copper, meteorites or native iron, obsidian, amber, beads, copper, gold, silver, and lead ingots have all been used. Until recently, people even utilized live animals as a kind of money, such as cows.

Nearly 5,000 years ago, the Mesopotamian shekel — the first known form of currency – appeared. The earliest known mints were in Asia Minor between 650 and 600 B.C., when the Lydian and Ionian aristocracy employed stamped silver and gold coins to pay their forces.

The discovery of hordes of lead, copper, silver, and gold coins all over the world demonstrates that coinage was acknowledged as a means of commodity money at the beginning of the first millennium A.D., particularly in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Premodern trade is evidenced by the widespread circulation of Roman, Islamic, Indian, and Chinese coinage (1250 B.C. – A.D. 1450).

Coinage’s success as commodity money is largely due to its mobility, durability, transportability, and inherent value. Furthermore, political authorities might have influence over currency production, including mining, smelting, and minting, as well as circulation and use. Cows, for example, were a successful form of wealth and money in pastoral civilizations, but they were difficult to move and, of course, vulnerable to ecological calamities.

Money quickly became a tool for political control. To support the elite, taxes could be collected and armies might be recruited. Money, on the other hand, could serve as a calming influence, encouraging nonviolent transfers of goods, knowledge, and services within and across groups.

Money has served as a record, a memory, of transactions and relationships throughout history. Tally sticks, for example, were commonly employed by ancient Europeans as proof of debt.

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