Currency and Cultural Value

Large stones as currency

Written by Alana Jolley

August 14, 2014

Currency and Cultural Value

Currency and Cultural Value, can get a bit confusing when one has no idea what kind of value the current usage of currency has in an unfamiliar setting.  The large stones with holes in them outside of this simple hut dwelling is not the usual home savings account we might envision.  They are a whole new take on Currency and Cultural Value.

The first objects thought to be used as money were cattle, around 9,000-6,000 BC.  So how did we get from cows to coinage?  Evolution of money, or currency, cannot be explained in a chronological way because of the many different objects used as money/currency globally.  Cows, or maybe any kind of livestock, may have been the first currency-type objects, but who can say whether berries, fish, or shells may not have been first?  Such perishable items could only have been used temporarily of course.

Human beings are very creative in figuring out ways to cope with common cultural necessities, such as keeping track of things and fixing values.  Having to keep track of “things,” meant that those things had to have some relative cultural value.  These large carved stones, with holes in the middle, may be the most creative monetary system of all time – and it is still being used today on the island of Yap in the Pacific Ocean.  Yap is one of the four states of the island nation of Micronesia, and the Yapese still use the large stones, called Rai, as currency.  Some of these Rai are five feet tall and weigh several tons!  How one becomes the owner of a Rai is quite another story!

The Rai in the above picture are so large they are not to be moved; but some Rai are smaller and can be moved by inserting a large stick in the hole with a person on either side.  This technique makes it possible to move them short distances. Wallets are obviously not needed in Yapese culture!


Chinese metal “shells”


Cows are still used for currency by the Nuer in Africa, especially for young women dowries.


Ancient Roman coins.

The Chinese were the first to copy cowrie shells, using base metals.  They copied the size and shapes of the shells, which were used for money, beginning about 1200 BC.

The Chinese also had the first paper bank notes about 800 AD.

Chinese artisans made Bronze and Copper money around 500 BC., but the first “coins” were simple lumps of silver, but eventually became round as we know them today.

As coinage evolved, precious metals like gold and silver were used.  In 294 AD the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, reformed the coinage of Rome.  He wanted the coins to be of very low silver content, made with silver-washed bronze.  Just like today, the value of gold coinage was fixed to that of silver; its rate therefore varied according to fluctuations in the market value of the metals.

Other forms of tangible exchange anciently were beads, shells, salt, tea leaves, peppercorns, conch shells and blankets.  Exchanges that are not tangible objects are reciprocity, bartering, and trade, which are also in common use today in many cultural markets.

In today’s digital age exchanges take place using plastic cards called ATM or Credit Cards instead of physical  currency.  Who knows what digital cash may look like in the future or what the values of such “cash” may be?  It is rather amazing that cows are still used for currency in some cultures; and that the Yap still use large stone disks.

Copy and paste these links into your browser to learn about ancient currency exchanges still in use today.

 You might also want to visit the MoneyMuseum at the following link:

Explore More! after visiting the links above.

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