From Salt to Squirrel Pelts: Strange forms of money

In this materialistic world money is one of the most sought after things. There are very few things which money can’t buy and thus, we have seen people, through the ages, fighting bloody, gory wars or exploring unknown lands to possess more and more money. In our common parlance, money is represented by currency notes and coins- coins of precious metals which have their own material value or coins of not-so-precious metals whole value lies in their formal recognition from the governments. However, apart from these common forms, money and more generally wealth has been represented by various other forms through the ages. Some of these things are bizarre; others are so mundane that we can’t even think of them as representing wealth on the first instance. Here we have prepared a list of such things which are not well known as a form of representing wealth from various corners of the world.

Salt

Salt was one of the most sought after commodity in ancient world. In ancient times it was not as easily available as it is today. In ancient China, salt was used to pay taxes by the subjects. The Roman state occasionally pays its soldiers in salt. The Latin for salt- “salarium” is the root word of salary. Even in modern times, some nomadic groups from Ethiopia used salt as a medium of barter.

Cowry Shells

Cowry shells were extensively used in various parts of south east Asia, India, China, and eastern Africa as medium of exchange. They were collected from the sea. The Indian subcontinent experienced a demonetization process in the early medieval ages (c. 6th century CE- 11th century CE). Coins became scarce in this period and cowry shells became the main medium of exchange and business. Even in the modern age, Indian merchant community considered cowry shells as auspicious items and linked it to the Hindu goddess of wealth, Laxmi.

Arrowhead coins

These were actually small pieces of bronze cast in the shape of arrowheads. They originated as early as 7th century BCE in the northern shores of the Black Sea. With time, the artisans who produced these pieces acquired some artistic skills and this was reflected in the more sophisticated execution of the arrowhead coins. The later arrowhead coins were produced in shapes like fishes and dolphins.

Peppercorn

Peppercorn is one of the most extensively traded spices from the ancient times. At present, the trade in peppercorns accounted almost a quarter of all the spice trade around the world. Peppercorn was highly valued in ancient times. Its value was as high as gold and thus, when the Huns and the Visigoths siege Rome they demanded large quantities of peppercorn as ransom. The trade in peppercorn and other exotic spices from south east and south Asia in the early modern ages was one of the main impetuses behind the formation of large European colonial empires in these regions.

Squirrel Pelts

In medieval Russia and Finland, Squirrel pelts were considered as highly prized possession and extensively used as a medium of exchange. The mass killing of squirrels for their pelts in Russia ironically saved the Russians from the devastating effects of cannabis, the Plague epidemics which were frequent visitors in medieval and early-modern Europe.

The Decline of Coins in the Early Medieval India

Have you ever thought of life without money? Can you imagine a society where no one uses coins and currency in economic transactions? Though it may sound weird, it was the case in India at a certain point of time. After the fall of the mighty Gupta dynasty in the mid-6th century CE, several smaller states came into existence in India. The big cities of the earlier age were all in decline. With them declined trade and commerce. The prosperous days of Indo-Roman trade were gone. Under these circumstances, the economy of India became more agrarian and land-centric.

Based on these evidences several scholars has argued that the period between the fall of the Gupta dynasty (mid-6th century CE) and the commencement of the Muslim Sultanate rule in Delhi in the 13th century was marked by the emergence of an Indian variety of feudalism. This same period is known among the historians of India as early medieval period. The scarcity of money, in the form of coins of course, was another major feature of this age.

So, how did the people buy goods or services in the absence of hard cash? The proponents of feudalism theory argued that the cowrie shells became the principal medium of exchange during this period. The cowrie shells had definite market value. They were used by merchants and ordinary people for small scale local transactions. Though long distance trading activities were in decline, some merchants still managed to export rice from the eastern part of India to Maldives. In exchange they brought cowrie shells from Maldives to use in the local market. The Indian Ocean trade was the main source of cowrie shells in the Indian market.

However, foreign merchants refused to accept cowrie shells in exchange of their products. Thus, the states were compelled to issue some debased and devalued copper and silver coins. Thus, there was not any absolute absence of coins. There were certainly some coins in circulation in the market. But these coins were no match with the coins of the Guptas. Gold coins became very rare in this period as they were not essential for an economy based on declining trade. The coins of this period also lacked the aesthetic quality and precision of the earlier period. They remained mere imitation of the earlier age.

Nevertheless, there are some scholars who countered the hypothesis of scarcity of coins in the early medieval India. John S. Deyell is one the champion of this counter-argument to the theory of shortage of coin. He suggested that the number of coins in circulation did not decline in this period. What was in decline was the value of the coins. As trade was in decline, people needed very little amount of hard cash for their sustenance. Moreover, the circulation of cowrie shells solved their problem of acquiring metal coins as there was a scarcity of silver supply in early medieval India. This shortage of silver came to known as the ‘Silver famine’. The opponent of the feudalism theory further argued that a human society could not exist completely abandoning trade and commerce. Salt and iron are two essential commodities for sustenance and they are not available everywhere. Thus, people had to engage in some sort of economic transaction to procure these products.

Well, now-a-days our economy is again leading towards a system where carrying and transacting via hard cash is becoming obscure day by day. Digital and plastic money is becoming more convenient. It is interesting to note that the idea of inventing the alternatives to hard cash is not at all new. People in the early medieval age, too, look for the alternatives and they found cowrie shells.