Today, when you buy a fifty-cent ice cream cone and you have a dollar, you expect to receive some coin in change. But what would you have done thousands of years ago when there were no quarters, dimes, nickels or even pennies?
At one time there was no money at all. There were only things that people wanted. Men lived in caves and hunted and fished for their livelihood. All they needed in order to exist was shelter, food and clothing. But even in this early time people had different tastes and habits.
Some men liked to hunt and fish; others liked to stay at home and make things. The man who hunted brought back meat and furs which the man at home needed for food and clothing.
The man at home made spears, hatchets, arrows and pottery which the hunter wanted. So the two men traded with each other. This was called barter.
As time went on, more and more animals were killed, and more and more animal skins accumulated. Then someone had a brilliant idea. Why couldn't these furs be used in exchange for pottery, weapons and food? People were always needing new clothes and new bed coverings.
So furs became the first money because everyone needed them, they were easy to keep and to carry, and they were readily exchanged for other things.
Later, when people began to farm the land, to raise grain. sheep and cattle, there was less hunting of wild animals. Wealth now was estimated by the number of farm animals a man owned and cattle became money, instead of furs.
Cattle were not so convenient to handle, however. If you wanted to buy a pottery bowl, you might give the potter an ox. But you would expect to receive quite a lot of change since an ox is worth a great deal more than the bowl. So your change would be a flock of sheep.
An ox was worth ten sheep.
But if a man's cattle and sheep wandered away and became lost, he was left without any money at all. So those who could afford it hired men to watch their flocks, paying them in livestock.
Then one day on the island of Cyprus, copper was dug out of the earth for the first time. This copper was made into pots and the copper pots now became money. These were better than cattle - copper didn't eat or walk away- but they were still a little awkward.
To do a day's marketing, the housewife of that time had to take a donkey laden with copper pots to market in order to have enough "money" for her purchases.
Then someone thought of cutting the copper into strips. A strip was called an oholus, and six of them made a handful.
The copper was valuable in itself, and so it was useful as money.
Eventually people discovered that they could mix cheaper metals with the valuable copper and make more money.
Copper then decreased in value. So the governments began to put their stamps upon the metals used for money to certify the quality and weight, so that people would not be cheated in buying and selling.
Many things such as salt, com, wood, shells and even elephants' tails have been used as money by various peoples. And even after real money began, furs and oxen were still being used in barter in some parts of the world.
But the copper obolus was undoubtedly the ancestor of our own penny and the beginning of convenient, easy-to-handle money as we know it today.
So that's the story they tell us, and our grandparents and parents through time immemorial. But what about today with online shopping and fractional reserve banking and quantitive easing??
Watch this video below and learn how all money is just a matter of faith, the ultimate religious experience that requires us all to believe or the whole thing will just come crashing down;
- Ilustrations by Paul Hartley.