The Fruits of Civilization (17) Money


Money alone sets all the world in motion. ~ Publilius Syrus in the 1st century bce, a Syrian slave who became a Latin writer

Though it may be socked away for another day, money is ultimately a method of exchange. Numismatics is the study of money and its history.

Though the terms are commonly used interchangeably, money and currency carry slightly different definitions. Whereas money is a generic fungible (a medium of exchange), currency is a monetary species, such as dollars or euros.

Currency brings money to life. The term currency derives from currentia in Medieval Latin, meaning “in circulation.”

Money is to economics what energy is to physics: a measurement system for an abstraction. The unit of value that characterizes a currency is non-arbitrary only by its entanglement in a mesh of relatives.

Money originated as an abstraction to overcome the logistical difficulties of barter. Currency is unique in being a commodity of social consensus: an agreed-upon token representing some designated value.

Money was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination. ~ Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari

Anatolian obsidian – volcanic glass from Asia Minor – was the material of choice for Stone Age tools. As early as 15,000 bce, obsidian served as currency. By 9,000 bce there was organized trade via obsidian. Çatalhöyük and other ancient Neolithic villages in Anatolia were partly supported by having a supply of obsidian nearby. This was contemporaneous with grain and livestock as units of trade.

Early currencies were commodities of common use, chosen for their utility and marketability. Ancient Indians used almonds as currency; southeast Asians, rice; Mongolians, bricks of tea; Guatemalans, corn; Babylonians, barley; Nicobar Island natives, coconuts; Norwegians, butter and dried cod.

More symbolic currency arose in the Levant in the early 4th millennium bce. The Mesopotamians used weighed amounts of silver for payments. Silver superseded grain because it did not rot. Centuries later, Egyptians added luster to the idea by using gold bars. This evolution in currency corresponded with greater sophistication in appreciating the economics of scarcity and abundance.

When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use. ~ Aristotle