Text by Shailendra Bhandare. Illustration by Richard Cagomoc
Money is understood to be dollars and cents today but that hasn’t always been the case throughout history. Asian Geographic looks back at all the different valuable objects that have been used as currency through the centuries.
As far back as 3100 BC, we have
evidence of a gold/silver value ratio in
the code of Menes, the founder of the
first Egyptian dynasty. In this code, it
is stated, “one part of gold is equal
to two and one half parts of silver
in value”. This makes it one of the
earliest forms of definitive currency.
More than 3,000 years ago, during
the Qin Dynasty, China led the
ancient world by introducing shells
as a medium of exchange and unit of
account in commerce.
The character for “shell” (贝) is an
important component in Chinese and
almost all things or acts concerning
money have the component of the
shell: fortune, poverty, goods, trade,
businessman, tribute, greed, expense,
compensation, ransom, expensive,
noble, cheap, humble. Shell (贝) also
gave way to the term bao bei, which
The Egyptians considered cowry
shells to be magical agents and also
used them as currency in foreign
exchange transactions. Archaeologists
have excavated millions of them in
the tombs of the Pharaohs.
First used as a spice in India, then as
a form of currency, unground pepper
made good currency because it
retains flavour and intrinsic value for
long periods of time.
The term “peppercorn rent” still exists
today, which basically means very low
rent. Peppercorns are also known as
Used in the past in China, Japan and
Thailand (tamleung), taels werer made
of silver and based on weight.
In China, there were different weighing
measurements depending on the
region or type of trade. A standard
silver tael would weigh 40 grams.
In India the cowry was an important currency – and even large transactions like the building of a property were paid in millions of cowries.
Papua New Guinea (Oceania)
Dog teeth served as decoration and money in different parts of Papua New Guinea and of Papua. Their quantity was restricted because only the canine teeth were considered as money.
During the German colonial rule over New Guinea, the Germans imported dog-like teeth made from porcelain. The locals used these imitations just like real teeth. Dog teeth continued to be used as currency up until the 1960s.
Island of Yap (Oceania)
Mined in nearby Palau and transported for use on Yap, rai were large, circular stone disks that served as currency.
The physical possession of the rai stone was not important. What mattered was that the ownership was clear to everyone.
Today, they are used for important social events such as marriage, receiving inheritance, political deals or signing of an alliance.
Europeans of medieval times used the bartering system for trade, which mainly consisted of goats, cows and other livestock. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, the currency produced under the Norman kings were all silver pennies, made at local mints throughout the country. This practice was continued among Anglo-Saxon kings.
All coins were silver until 1252, when gold coins were made in Florence, called florins. The use of silver was soon reduced to very small amounts in coins and replaced with copper.
Trans-Saharan trade linked the Mediterranean economies that demanded gold – and could supply salt to the sub-Saharan economies, where gold was abundant.
In the 14th century, cowry shells were introduced from the eastern coast as local currency, but gold and salt remained the principal mediums of long-distance trade.
The Africans were willing to trade one pound of gold for one pound of salt and vice versa. The Saudis would trade salt bars for gold, cloth, cereal and slaves.
China (mainly produced in Sichuan)
Also used in Siberia, Tibet, Mongolia and Turkenistan, tea bricks were the preferred form of currency over metallic coins for the nomads of Mongolia and Siberia because it could be used as money, eaten as food and even used for medicinal properties.
In the 13th century, cowry shells were brought to Africa from the Maldives by Arab traders. They first came to Egypt, then across the Sahara to the western Sudan region.
Later, they were brought in by Dutch and English traders through the Guinea Coast ports of West Africa.
Cowry shells were the most popular currency within Africa. Pictures of cowry shells adorned cave walls.
The Europeans were astonished that the Africans preferred cowry shells to gold coins and in places where gold was the international unit of foreign exchange, cowry shells were used to purchase small necessities.
The Maldives and Laccadive islands supplied Cypraea moneta for most of the world’s trade until the 18th century. Cypraea moneta is the most important marine invertebrate in the Maldives from a historical point of view. The reason is not just their abundance there, but the Maldivians developed a simple and highly efficient means of collecting them.
Native Americans used Wampum, which were strings of weaved beads made from clamshells from the Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam.
Wampum is still used to mark exchanges for engagement, marriage and betrothal agreements as well as in ceremonial events and currency.
The predominance of gold dust as currency did not facilitate smooth transactions because gold scales were not the same and the inequalities were the result of different styles of manufacture.
In the latter part of the 17th century, Arab traders proposed scale weight to be used for measuring gold dust.
MTT for short, this silver bullion-coin could also be found throughout
the Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Muscat and Oman, and in India.
Maria Theresa Thalers were first minted in 1741. It was named after Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia from 1740 to 1780.
In 1880, the exchange rate for one silver Thaler ranged from 8 to
100 Amolis (bars of salt).
Used in Manchukuo (When Manchuria was under Japanese Occupation)
Used to represent 1 and 5 fen (100 fen made up one yuan)
Made out of red or brown fibre resembling cardboard
Papua New Guinea
Islands north of New Guinea, shells were broken into flakes; holes are bored through the flakes, which are then valued by length.
On Papua New Guinea Island, shell currency is still considered legal currency and can be exchanged for Kina.