The Evolution of Money: From Bartering to Digital Currency

This article explores how money evolved from bartering to digital currency over time.

The Evolution of Money: From Bartering to Digital Currency

Before money was invented, people bartered for goods and services. It wasn't until about 5,000 years ago that the Mesopotamian people created the shekel, which is considered to be the first known form of currency. Gold and silver coins date from around 650 to 600 BC. C.

When stamped coins were used to pay armies. As an anthropologist who has discovered ancient coins in this field, I am interested to know how money evolved in human civilization and what these archaeological findings can tell us about trade and interaction between distant groups. Objects that were rarely found 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, which circulated widely in the Americas, and cowry shells that were used in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. Native copper, meteorites or native iron, obsidian, amber, pearls, copper, gold, silver and lead ingots have served in various ways as currency.

People even used live animals such as cows until relatively recently as a form of currency. The Mesopotamian shekel, the first known form of currency, emerged nearly 5000 years ago. The first known mints date back to 650 and 600 BC. In Asia Minor, where the elites of Lydia and Ionia used stamped silver and gold coins to pay armies. The discovery of hordes of lead, copper, silver and gold coins around the world suggests that the minting of coins, especially in Europe, Asia and North Africa, was recognized as a means of issuing merchant money at the beginning of the first millennium AD,. The wide circulation of Roman, Islamic, Indian and Chinese coins points to pre-modern trade (1250 BC).

The minting of coins as commercial currency owes its success largely to their portability, durability, transportability and inherent value. In addition, political leaders could control the production of coins (from mining, smelting and minting), as well as their circulation and use. Other forms of wealth and money, such as cows, successfully served pastoral societies, but they were not 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 increased.

However, money could also act as a stabilizing force that would encourage non-violent 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 example, medieval Europeans widely used counting sticks as a test to remember debt. In the past, as today, no society was completely self-sufficient and money allowed people to interact with other groups. People used different forms of currency to mobilize resources, reduce risks, and create alliances and friendships in response to specific social and political conditions. The abundance and almost universal evidence of the movement of exotic products in diverse regions inhabited by people who were independent of each other — from hunter-gatherers to shepherds, farmers and city dwellers — point to the importance of currency as a unifying principle.

It's like a common language that everyone could speak. For example, Americans who lived in the Early Formative Period (1450-500 BC) used obsidian, mother-of-pearl shells, iron ore and two types of ceramics as currency to trade in the Americas — one of the first examples of successful world trade. The Maritime Silk Road trade (A. D. 1-1450) also took place between Africa and Asia.

Archaeological discoveries such as this one illustrate the integration of Africa into commercial interactions in the Indian Ocean. They also show evidence that cash-based market economies were developing at that time. On the coast of East Africa there were local merchants and local Swahili kings who followed Islam and cultivated these external contacts with other merchants in the Indian Ocean. They wanted to facilitate business transactions while merchants in the Near East and South Asia had their own records of business contacts. The minting of coins was not only a local matter but also a way of leaving a business card — a signature — a symbolic sign of connections. In our time possession of cash currency differentiates the rich from the poor; the developed from the developing; those living in the global north from those living in emerging global south countries.

Money is both personal and impersonal; current global inequality is linked to formalization of money as a measure for well-being & sustainability for society. Despite evolution into digital age; current uses would still be familiar to our ancient predecessors. The basic definition for money is anything that a group of people commonly accepts in exchange for goods; services or resources; each country has its own system for exchanging coins & banknotes; commodities are basic items used by almost all members in given society; things like salt; tea; tobacco; livestock & seeds were once used as money.

Chelsey Renegar
Chelsey Renegar

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