Money is one of the primary determinants of our society’s stability. This is why we are looking at how our ancestors traded with each other without cash and cryptocurrency. Money has been here for nearly as long as humanity has existed but not in the light attractive forms, we see it today. A few centuries ago, the idea of a man’s net worth being stored on a small piece of paper or card was not imaginable. People found their money in the different forms of valuable, scarce items they knew, from salt to gold. Some communities had crazier forms of currency than others, but life worked that way. Now as civilization kicked in, these bulky monies had to give way to coins and notes and later, digital money as we enjoy it today. Here is a look at the ten strangest forms of currency from the time past.
Knife & Spade Coins
Now, this was money that could be used to cut or kill you, which probably made it the most dangerous currency to steal. Coins in Ancient China came in different forms, from Knives to spades but not as bulky as you may think. Knives were forged from the palace. The mark of royalty on each blade, and the weight of the coin determined their values.
There is little information regarding exactly how long or in which specific regions this currency was accepted. But it had to be in areas where iron was scarce, and blacksmiths were in short supply to prevent forgery. It is also likely that this was a hazardous form of currency to carry in large quantities as the currency could quickly turn from money to a weapon. The knives also had to be weighed at each point of transaction to ascertain their authenticity and value. They gave way to smaller round coins during the Zhou Dynasty.
The Rai Stones
Now here is a currency whose value was in the stories surrounding the arrival of the “coins” home. It was the primary form of money on the island of Yap in the modern Micronesia Federal state. The rocks were mined from the limestone mines on the Island of Palau then shipped to the Island by Sailors. The stone’s sizes varied from small 7 to 8 cm rocks to huge ones weighing up to four tons. Now the size and weight mattered. But the value of the stone depended on the number of people that died while moving it from Palau, and how famous the sailor that brought it was.
The money was not kept in a bank or protected. Owners were known, and all details of the exchange were recorded in folklore. It was also useless to steal any stone because if no one knew how you got your stone, it was worthless. The owner retained the value of the stone even if it fell into the sea because people still recognized the story of the rock. The most important thing was knowing exactly where your rock was sitting on the Island, then your money was safe.
Dolphins are the most famous marine mammal for their social nature. That has made them a popular feature in most amusement parks but not to the natives of the Solomon Islands. Throughout the Solomon Islands, dolphin teeth have been used as a currency and jewelry. Dolphin meat also fetches a lot of money from the locals. The local fishermen have an age-old prowess in hunting dolphins. They knock rocks under the ocean interfering with the communication mechanism of the dolphins, which makes them very vulnerable to the hunters.
It is estimated that over 15,000 dolphins have been hunted and killed on the island between 1976 and 2013, but the practice is not going away any time soon. One dolphin tooth can sell for 30 to 90 cents on the Islands as people use more of them as bride price and jewelry. Measures to prevent the practice have only helped increase the value of each tooth as they become scarcer and hence more valuable.
Today, no one would accept a currency that can be eaten or get dissolved on contact with water. But the Romans and many people in Africa didn’t have much choice in the early days. It is believed that salt was used as a primary form of currency across Europe, Asia, and Africa as early as 5000BCE. The production of salt was restricted to specific places and the supply controlled by the various governments from Egypt to Rome, which is why salt as currency didn’t mean a wrecked economy.
Salt is used in every aspect of life, including food preservation, medicinal purposes, religious sacrifices, and as we know it today, a flavor. The quality and quantity of the salt determined its value. This one was more prone to robbery and damage because if you were rained on while carrying your salt, you had lost your money.
Not everyone lived next to the sea, so shells were in more abundant supply among coastal communities than they were further inland. That is why precious shells have been used as a currency on almost every continent on Earth. In parts of Africa and Asia, a kind of shell from a snail called the money cowrie was the source of this currency.
This currency also put these precious snails at danger as their scarce and beautiful shells were on high demand as ornaments on clothes and jewelry. The net worth of a person was determined by how many sacks of cowrie his property could sell for. These shells are still harvested across the world as jewelry because most regions stopped using them as money in the 19th and 20th century.
The only beverage consumed more than the water around the world is tea, which is why this Asian currency nearly became the dollar of the 16th century. Tea bricks are made from compressed tea leaves which were highly valuable in China, India, Tibet as well as other parts of Africa, Russia, and Europe. It was used to trade even critical military equipment such as swords, canons, and horses because of its scarcity and the value attached to the different strains of tea.
British soldiers introduced tea bricks to Britain and later America because they were highly durable, tasty, and portable. These little bricks would go on to be used as currency well into the 20th century where soldiers used it to trade items among themselves and with locals throughout WWI and WWII. Some people believe that tea will be the best currency in case of a financial apocalypse, or any apocalypse for that matter.
It is the most famously known form of currency from Ancient Egypt believed to have preceded coins. Now, the ancient Celtics from around 700BC are given credit for the creation of these copper arrowheads. There were other coins shaped as wheels as well, but the arrowhead coins were the most precious. Their demand was higher among the Thracians and other communities across the black sea.
The reason for the popularity of these copper arrowheads may be hard to understand today, but these little things were very precious then. Copper and bronze were resistant to rusting and very malleable, which made them the critical component in Greek weapons. The finished Celtic arrowheads were also very light which made them an excellent part on long-range arrows.
Katanga is the region of Congo famous for its high concentration of copper which has been mined since the 13th century. When the Portuguese came, they established primitive mines. These mines allowed local smiths to start forging jewelry from the copper. The most famous of their products were the beautiful crosses which came to be known as the Katanga cross. The sizes varied from 200 grams to 1kg and the larger your cross, the more items you could buy with it.
The cross made from this copper initially used by autocrats and local chiefs to make large transactions and perform essential rituals which established its value among the locals. Common commodities such as food, guns, and land soon started being valued in terms of Katanga crosses. The most commonly known primary value was that ten crosses were worth ten guns; the rest could be broken down from that. Its value fell in the 19th and 20th century as copper coins developed by colonial governments became common, forcing this bulky currency to join the archives.
Today, oil is called black gold but peppercorn, as common as it may seem today was a very precious commodity across the world a few years back. Pepper was a very scarce commodity only known to come from the Spice Islands (India) at the time, and the merchants had a way of keeping the source a secret. The Portuguese and later the Dutch found the source of this precious commodity.
The workers in pepper factories were given clothes without pockets to prevent theft as the value f black pepper was worth more than it’s weight in gold. Individual peppercorns became the most sought-after spice in Europe, leading to its acceptance as a medium of exchange and legal currency. That makes it the most widely accepted edible currency after salt. Pepper, however, started to be grown in more nations around the world, boosting its supply, which reduced the value below money demand.
Africa is home to some of the most dangerous snakes on the planet including the Puff adder and the black Mamba which jointly account for the death of hundreds of people annually on the continent. The Gedi and Lobi tribes of Burkina Faso, however, revere snakes and most of their artworks depicted the various snake species the community believed in as their mediator between this world and the next. Their metal artworks in iron, and copper soon started to be exchanged between the communities.
The trend continues among the rural farmers of the Lobi tribes as their snakes remain one of the most valuable commodities in the local communities and accepted as money by many. Some Lobi snakes are sold online at a price well higher than their equivalent of other African artifacts.