Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:16
We are very used to our shiny coins and small banknotes nowadays, which are tucked away neatly in our pockets, purses and wallets and hardly given a second thought until we need them to pay for something.
But while the concept of paying for something using something else in exchange is hardly a modern idea, if we had been around many hundreds of years ago we wouldn't be offering up small coins and paper notes in payment for the goods we wanted.
Over time some very odd things have changed hands as a form of payment. Paying for goods in times gone by was more often referred to as bartering, and seeing as no one had thought of the idea of money as yet, people had to improvise and come to an agreement on what they would swap as a fair exchange. In this way both parties got what they wanted. It was a common occurrence that different people and different exchanges warranted different forms of payment; the advent of coins as payment got rid of this need to sort out an agreement in advance, as everyone could now use the same form of payment to buy their goods.
Bartering meant that if you had a sack of beans and you wanted to buy a sack of seeds to grow food for your family, you had to find someone who was willing to make that exchange and thought that what you were offering was fair. They also had to want the bag of beans you could offer them. If they didn't, you had to keep looking.
This was why people bartered using lots of different items as money. Tobacco was very popular among those who liked it, but if you had a lot of tobacco and the person you wanted to buy some grain from didn't like it – on went the search for someone who did, who also had grain to sell.
Throughout history, any item which was viewed as a commodity (basically, an item which someone else wanted) could be used as a form of payment. Even animals were used in payment for something else, as people wanted them to help feed their families. Cows could give milk on a daily basis, for example, so they were viewed as quite valuable.
But even when bartering came to an end and the idea of a common item to be exchanged for other goods or services came into being, we were still a long way from creating the kind of money we are familiar with in the modern day. Cowry shells were agreed on as a form of currency back in 1200 BC, basically because there were plenty of them and they were thought to be quite convenient for the purpose. They must have served their purpose well, because they did survive in some cultures as a form of currency right up until the 20th century in some isolated areas.
If you explore the different currencies used in various countries around the world today, you will sometimes come across coins which have a hole in the middle. You will no doubt have wondered why that hole came to be there, and the reason actually harks back thousands of years to when shells were used as currency in some cultures. Because the people in those times didn't wear clothing which had pockets, they had to come up with some other way of being able to carry round their currency with them in a convenient manner. The shells had holes in them so that they could quite simply be strung on a necklace and worn around their necks.
This was certainly far more convenient than carrying around some of the items which have been used in place of money over the years. While feathers are certainly light to carry, it would be far easier to lose that kind of money than it would to catch a banknote if it got caught in a breeze today. Whale's teeth wouldn't have been very comfortable to carry in your hand, and if you used salt as a form of payment like some people did, you might have lost some of your money through a hole in the bottom of the bag.
Even when coins first appeared in around 500 BC, they weren't the kind of coins we are familiar with today. They were made from precious metals such as silver and gold, which made them individually very valuable rather than just being a token of a certain value as we tend to know coins today. A £2 coin, for example, is not actually worth £2, but we recognise that it has that value in our society. In times gone by a silver coin was worth exactly what it was made of.
In essence, the kind of money we are familiar with today is fake money, or artificial money. It isn't worth what it says it is, unlike the forms of currency used in the past. Cattle would obviously have been worth far more than a bag of grain, for example, but it was down to the individuals involved in the transaction to decide how many bags of grain equalled a single cow in value.
While we have a proper and widely accepted system of money in place today, bartering still does go on. Have you ever agreed to exchange a skill for a skill, for example, or a possession in exchange for something belonging to someone else?
Every time you do this you are using methods of paying for goods that were used thousands of years ago – and it's somewhat reassuring to know those techniques are still alive and kicking today.
So the next time you take some coins out of your pocket, or reach into your wallet or purse to take out a banknote, thank your lucky stars that your ancestors had the bright idea of coming up with a common currency that everyone could use.
Otherwise you would still be carrying around conch shells.