Paper, coins, and plastic are what we use to purchase, but there have been many interesting things used as currencies throughout the world in history.
Livestock is likely one of the oldest forms of money, dating back to 9000 B.C. The words capital, chattel, and cattle all have a common root, and the word pecuniary (meaning financial) comes from pecus, the Latin word for cattle. Until well into the 20th century, the Kirghiz (a Turkish ethnic group found primarily in Kyrgyztan) used horses for large exchanges, sheep for lesser trades, and lambskins for barters that required small change.
Cowry shells are marine snails found chiefly in tropical regions and were the medium of exchange used in China around 1200 B.C. These shells were so widely traded that their pictograph became the symbol for money in the written language. The earliest metallic money in China were cowries made of bronze or copper.
The largest form of money are 12 – foot limestone coins from the Micronesian island of Yap. A coin’s value was determined by its size. Displaying a large one outside your home was a sign of status and prestige. Because of the coins’ size and immobility, islanders would often trade only promises of ownership instead of actual coins. Approximately 6,800 coins still exist around the island, though the U.S. dollar is now the official currency.
Throughout history, salt and pepper have been used as money, owing to their value as seasonings and preservatives and for their importance in religious ceremonies. In ancient Rome, salt was used as money. Sal, the Latin word for salt, is the root of the English word salary. Roman workers were paid with salt, hence the expression “worth one’s salt.” And in England in the Middle Ages, rent could be paid in peppercorns.
Other interesting Roman trivia: The word “spa” dates back almost 2,000 years to when Roman soldiers, marching home from battle, stopped overnight in a Belgian village that had hot mineral springs. The town, named Spa, became a popular resting spot for Roman soldiers returning from battle.
More Roman trivia: The “dog days of summer” refers to the ancient Roman belief that Sirius, the Dog Star, was closer to Earth from July 3 to Aug. 11, causing unusually high temperatures.
Even better Roman info: In about 200 B.C., the Carthaginian ruler, Hannibal (who commanded Carthage’s main army against Rom during the Second Punic War and considered one of the greatest military commanders in history) defeated an enemy’s navy by stuffing poisonous snakes into earthen jugs and catapulting them onto the decks of his opponent’s ships.
Made me laugh: A Roman legionnaire walks into a bar, holds up two fingers and says, “Five beers, please.”
Made me laugh even more: I, for one, like Roman numerals.
See you on the bricks!