3.1 The Early History of Money

Early History of Money

Like it or loathe it, we live in a world dominated by money. In the coming weeks I’ll take a look at how women have fared under that system. I will talk about women and credit, women and the GDP, women and marital property, women and taxation without representation, and women in high finance. But this episode covers how we got to this state in the first place, starting with ancient Sumeria, the switch to precious metals, and just how baffling some other cultures found the whole money concept.

Selected Sources and Images

Among my sources this week is The Evolution of Money by David Orrell and Roman Chlupatý.

A cuneiform tablet with an envelope that is now broken. The Sumerians recorded debts on clay envelopes and marked with a seal, which would be broken when the debt was paid. This particular one promises to pay 48 workers for 11 days to haul a boat full of flour north to the town of Nippur. The envelope is witnessed by Mansina, son of Lukirzal.

This object is in the Louvre. The image is by Rama, found on Wikimedia.

The Lele people of the Congo used raffia cloth as currency. But like many cultures around the world, the currency was not always traded for the same reasons that modern people use money, leading many scholars to question whether “money” is the right word for it at all.

Image from the British Museum

A potlatch was way of redistributing goods, with no money attached used by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. In this watercollor of the Klallam people, a woman is giving gifts to the people gathered.

Image by James Gilchrist Swan (1818–1900)

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