10 Bizarre Forms of Ancient Currency

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Money. Just hearing the word makes people’s ears prick up. But would you accept a brick of salt or a large rock instead of your regular paycheck? Understanding the value of money over time is a key point in finance – and time has certainly changed what people value. Historically, people have assigned monetary value to a wide variety of objects. And while most of these currencies wouldn’t be practical today, they serve as important reminders of what people used to value and why. Ancient currencies came in many amazing shapes, sizes and formats. Here we look at ten incredible examples that are quite different from what we use today.

10. Dolphin Teeth

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The most disturbing of the ancient currencies may be dolphin teeth, which were used in the Solomon Islands for hundreds of years, in keeping with timeworn traditions. In 2008 the island’s dollar currency became devalued. The locals responded by stockpiling money, which in turn caused a coin shortage that made matters worse. So, as a result, some parts of the islands went back to the traditional use of dolphin teeth. Incredibly, the teeth quadrupled in value. Local dolphin hunter Henry Sukufatu told The Wall Street Journal, “The white man’s money will end, but the dolphin teeth will always be there for us.”

In January 2013 the region made headlines when Malaita villagers butchered up to 900 bottlenose dolphins thanks to a conservation dispute. Locals confirmed that they resumed their yearly dolphin cull after a U.S.-based conservation group failed to pay them the full agreed-upon compensation for refraining from killing the marine mammals.

9. Squirrel Pelts

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Historically, fur pelts have played a vital role in bartering and trading. In the medieval era, squirrels were prized for their pelts, and they became a recognized form of currency in Russia and Finland. In fact, in Russia the killing of squirrels for currency may have inadvertently saved a significant portion of the population from the bubonic plague. At that time, Russia was using squirrel pelts as cash, with the animals’ snouts and claws possibly representing change. Even today in Finland squirrel pelts are apparently accepted as currency and have a monetary exchange value. So if you hear someone say the words “squirrel pelt” in Finland, you know the discussion could well be about money.

8. Salt

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Salt has been an important commodity for millennia. It played a prominent role in the development of early civilizations and is referenced in several major religious traditions or texts. In 2200 BCE it was used for one of the earliest recorded tax payments, by then emperor of China Yu the Great. Outrage over a salt tax was among the catalysts for the French Revolution, and the commodity also played an important role in the American Civil War.

Moreover, back in the Ancient Roman era, soldiers were sometimes paid in salt packs. Interestingly, the Latin adjective relating to salt, “salarium,” gave rise to the English words “soldier” and “salary.” Even in the present day, some nomadic people of Ethiopia use salt as their currency.

7. Peppercorns

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In Ancient Greece, the scarcity of peppercorns made them extremely valuable. Then in the 5th century, Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun supposedly both ordered the Romans to hand over huge quantities of black pepper as ransom when they attacked the city of Rome itself.

By the Middle Ages, peppercorns had become an accepted form of currency. During the 15th century, the European demand for pepper was so high that it played a major role in the creation of sea routes from the spice-growing areas of the Far East. Referred to as “black gold,” peppercorns were so expensive prior to the 19th century that only the very wealthy could buy them. And today black pepper is still the most widely traded spice in the world.

6. Wampum (Beads)

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America’s first currency was beads – specifically, wampum. These are traditionally handcrafted beads made from the white shells of whelks and the purple and white shells of the quahog (clam). When European settlers came to North America in the 16th and early 17th century, they noticed that wampum were sacred and valuable to the Native Americans. The colonists discovered that they could obtain much-needed supplies from the indigenous peoples if they traded wampum. Thus, wampum became an official currency – even though the indigenous population did not see it as money. With the aid of European tools, wampum started being mass-produced in factories. Eventually, in 1663, the shell beads were demonetized in the New England colonies – although they remained official tender in New York until the early 1700s; and some factories continued to produce wampum until the early 20th century. The Native Americans became disinclined to trade pelts for wampum, which perhaps reduced the value of the beads. Ultimately, the colonists may have learned a very valuable economic lesson about supply and demand.

5. Tea Brick

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Another fascinating ancient currency comes in the form of the tea brick. Producing these valuable objects involved combining the tea plant stalks and leaves with various herbs and, at times, wood chips. The mixture was firmly pressed using ox blood, and sometimes dung was employed as a binding agent. Traditional tea bricks displayed Chinese characters or unique designs, while markings on the back of big tea bricks would help them to be divided evenly. In the 19th century they were made use of as currency in China, and they were also used in Russia, Tibet, Siberia and Mongolia. The bricks had an understood value. For example, 12 bricks would buy you a sheep, while 20 would get you a horse. In Siberia, the bricks were consumed like a kind of eatable currency until as late as World War II, and they were used as medicine as well.

4. Rai Stones

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On the island of Yap in Micronesia, size matters. Some evidence suggests that the Yapese people may have been creating their rai stones since around 500 AD. To produce this unusual form of currency, the Yapese traveled to the neighboring island of Palau to obtain limestone. They shaped the stone into big circular discs with central holes. These were then transported on a long, perilous voyage back to Yap. Some stones measured as much as 12 feet across and weighed over four tons. The stones’ dangerous – and sometimes fatal – production process increased their value. But once they’d been used for payment, their location often remained unchanged. In fact, a physical exchange may not have been necessary, as long as everyone knew to whom the rai belonged. Their value diminished with the arrival of the Europeans, whose technology quickly increased production. Today, rai stones are used in traditional rites and remain a national emblem. Their image is also proudly displayed on Yapese license plates.

3. Cowry Shells

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Cowry shells are among the earliest known forms of ancient currency. The shells come from sea snails known as cowries, and the most commonly used cowry was the Monetaria moneta, which is known as the money cowry. The shells are small, easy to carry, durable and tough to copy – although some people did make counterfeit cowry shells using materials like horn, bone, lead, and even silver and gold. Aside from their currency purposes, cowries were also used to make stunning jewelry and ornamentation. Cowries started as a medium of exchange in China as early as the 16th century BCE. And over time their use as a type of currency spread to major trading areas in Africa, Arabia, parts of Europe and considerable portions of Asia. As testament to how significant they are in Chinese culture, images of cowry shells appear in Chinese characters related to trade and currency.

2. Arrowhead Coins

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This truly fascinating ancient currency type originates from the northern part of the Black Sea. As early as the 7th century BCE, these unique arrowhead coins were issued as currency in the area known as Great Scythia, a far-reaching region that included portions of what is now the Ukraine, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, North Caucasus and parts of Russia. Bronze arrowhead money appeared before many more familiar ancient coins and was appreciated for its bronze consistency as well as its capacity to be used for weapons. These coins were cast in many shapes, and they eventually took on the more intricate form of dolphins and fish.

1. Knife Money

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Like arrowhead coins, ancient Chinese “knife money” combined weaponry and currency. As with the arrowheads, knife money may be an indicator of what was valuable, important and treasured at the time. The bizarre currency first appeared in China around 600 BCE, at the time of the Zhou dynasty. Historians believe that the knife-shaped coins were modeled after scraper-knives used by nomadic huntsmen in the eastern and northern parts of the country. Most knife currency was inscribed with numbers or a single word – for example, “sheep” or “fish” – which may have been used to mark the value of the particular coin. Each money piece also included an inscription signifying the fact that it was official currency. Knife money was made use of for hundreds of years, until the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, abolished the currency and declared that only circular coins with a square hole in the middle would be accepted as legal tender.