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Ancient Currencies of the World


From the beginning of time the first ancient currencies system was most likely in the form of barter. Barter is the act of trading something of value with another item that is determined to be of equal value between those who are bargaining. The argument that ďone manís trash is another manís treasureĒ would be the difficulty of exchange in bartering. Even if an item has value, the question remains: does it have the equivalent value of that which is exchanged? This type of exchange obviously has its shortcomings, but it is still done today all over the world. Ruling governments look down on this type of practice because it takes the element of taxation away and reduces their income. Possibly in spite of this reason the most ancient of ancient currencies - Barter - is alive and well.


Over the course of time metals were discovered and used as a means of exchange. Usually copper, silver, and gold minerals were extracted from the earth by mining. Rarely were the minerals easily accessible in outcroppings or in stream beds. The minerals were then melted and refined in ancient times much like it is today. Ingots of various shapes and jewelry of pure metal were produced and became popular as a basis of value to exchange in trade. The glint of gold and silver was especially appealing to the eye and the most difficult to acquire.

The scarcity of these metals helped create the tier of values placed on each metal. The volume of the pure metal also helped become part of a standard of value. For example, if the metal was a silver ingot and it weighed more than another silver ingot, then more value was placed on the heavier of the two. Thus began a standard of weights and measures relating to purity and volume or weight of the rare metal. This type of economic standard may have started in ancient Egypt, but it was more obvious in the ancient Greek culture in the form of coins which were fairly consistent in dimension and purity of metal content.

Another standard of value comes out of rare metals and jewels. That standard is the artistic value of a piece of handcrafted jewelry. Not only does the item hold its value because of the rarity of the jewel and/or metal, but the craftsmanship of the piece designed by the artist can actually increase the value many times over its actual intrinsic value.

Jewels and Gems:

The use of gems or jewels for currency is sparsely evident in only some ancient literature. Gemstones were most likely first displayed as objects of interest in its natural earthly form. These stones exhibited characteristics of transparency, deep rich colors, and shapes with many angles and distinct sides. The sunlight refracting through these colorful minerals was a delight to see and an object of curiosity. Carvings were made from some precious and semi-precious stones in honor of Kings, Queens, gods or fictitious creatures and the chips were sometimes ground into a fine powder and sold as makeup for those who wore it.

The way a gemstone facet catches the light most likely inspired early lapidary craftsman to attempt to facet and polish them into what we call jewelry today. Imagine the attempts and failures that were made in the past with the use of crude instruments before an inexperienced man could properly facet a stone, refine his instruments, and become a craftsman of his day. A multifaceted jewel has the ability to catch the fire of light and refract it back to the eye of the beholder. Since the age of the Phoenicians and Egyptians, man has used jewels as ornaments of splendor for a King as well as for purchases of expensive items such as large tracts of land, buildings, or shipping vessels.

Clear glass or plastics of any kind werenít invented in ancient times, so there was no doubt of the authenticity of a gemstone if used as currency or in jewelry. (Note: Only an opaque glass was made for many centuries since its discovery in ancient times. Clear glass wasnít discovered until around 100 A.D. by the Romans and stained glass came into existence around the 11th century A.D. by the Venetians.)


Electrum is a naturally occurring mixture of Gold and Silver with maybe a little copper or other small amounts of metal added into the mix. Electrumís color varies between a pale gold color to a whitish looking color depending on the amount of gold and silver content in the alloy. The more gold content in the mix, the more yellow the metal appears. This mixture made it easy to produce coins since it was so malleable yet durable for use. It was also quite a convenience in ancient times when the art of separating the two metals was not yet perfected.

A monetary problem later became apparent in coin values due to nature's inconsistencies with the naturally occurring alloy from one source to the next. When ancient man learned to understand weights and establish values in exchange for goods, the electrum coin became up to ten times more valuable than the same type of coin hammered in silver, but not as valuable as pure gold.

Paper Currency/Scrip:

There are a number of alleged stories on whom or what country invented paper currency, bank notes, or scrip. Generally it is noted that ancient civilizations such as Egypt used written parchment or leather skin documents to act as a promise of payment to another. This would be a type of bank note. Most notes had an exchange value to it. It was used as a convenience to carry long distances without actually physically carrying the substance of value which typically weighed too much or was too bulky to travel with.

The most solid evidence of paper currency came in Europe when the early jewelers who kept their stockpile of precious metals safe would rent out a small space in their safe to the local wealthy. The jeweler would sign a paper scrip to confirm the amount of money that the wealthy individual possessed. The jeweler would charge a small fee for its safety. When the wealthy person needed the money, he would return the script and the exchange for actual currency minus the fee was consummated. Our current money is also a promise to pay backed by the promise of the countryís government who prints the money. The only difference between most of the promissory notes of the past and the ones we use today is that they actually were backed by something of value such as a precious metal or goods in demand.

The currency today is called fiat money. Fiat money is currency that is backed by a governing body to pay a tax or for a good or service in exchange. There is actually no valuable commodity backing the value of the currency. It is totally in good faith of the people that possess the money and those who accept it as having value.

Other Items of Interest:

There were other types of unusual currency used in various cultures of the ancient past.

For thousands of years and up to the nineteenth century the Amazonians, Mixtecs, Mayans, and Aztecs and other South and Central American cultures used the cacao bean otherwise known as the cocoa bean as currency. It has been recorded in sixteenth century documents that slaves were even purchased for only a few hundred cocoa beans.Shells and Conchs were used in North America, Africa and the Caribbean Islands. Some of the most famous shells

For thousands of years various herbs and spices were used as money for exchange if not used for flavoring or medicinal purposes. Salt and pepper are two of the oldest known spices used in exchange of other goods. Cinnamon was another highly sought after spice in the far east and middle east in ancient times.

Beaver pelts were used as currency in Canada and parts of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Stone money of various sizes was and is still used on the island of Yap.

English wooden split sticks were used as a form of money and generate an income for the King in England in the late 1600ís.

Below are a list of additional links for further reference of ancient and unusual currency:

Gems History of Glass Little Known Coin Facts Cacao Bean Money Yap Stones English Wooden Sticks