What We Used for Money Before Coins

It seems that money is one of humanity’s primary motivators, even more so, in some people, than family, friends and love. This is possibly because if you have enough money then you have more freedom and more options to buy your way into the things we all really want (including friends and love, in some people’s worlds).

We’ve all grown up with money in the form of paper notes and metal coins and some people find it hard to think of it in any other form, even distrusting online banking, for example. Throughout history, however, some really bizarre things have been used as currency, so when you next buy platinum from Golden Eagle Coins, you’re actually not as leftfield as your chums may tell you!

Salt was once used as currency

While we sprinkle it freely on our fries now, salt used to be very difficult to get hold of, so in ancient times it was very much a sought-after resource. The ancient Chinese people used it to pay their taxes and Roman soldiers were frequently paid in salt. The word “salary” is actually derived from this system of payment, as well as the expression “to be worth one’s salt”, which means someone’s doing a good job. Salt as a currency hasn’t entirely fallen out of favour, as some nomadic tribes in Ethiopia still use salt to barter with.

People literally used to “shell out” money

In some parts of Southeast Asia, China, East Africa and India, people used cowry shells as currency. These shells were collected from the sea and when India went through a process of demonetization between the sixth and eleventh centuries, shells took over from coins as a medium of exchange, even for businesses. Shells are still an important symbol of wealth and prosperity in India as they’re linked to Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.

Arrowhead-shaped coins

People living to the north of the Black Sea more than 2,700 years ago used these small pieces of bronze as money. Shaped like simple arrowheads initially, as production techniques became more sophisticated these early coins were made to look like fish and dolphins as well.


People like their food to have intense and interesting flavours and the more exotic the herbs and spices, the better. Peppercorns were one of the most highly-regarded and widely-traded spices in previous centuries, although it may seem commonplace now. Pepper, in fact, made around one quarter of all the spices traded. At some points, the value of peppercorns was as high as gold and when the Visigoths laid siege to Rome in the sixth century, they asked for huge quantities of peppercorns as payment.

In later centuries, the trade in peppercorn and other spices from Asia drove the era of European empire-building.

Squirrel pelts

Believe it or not, squirrel skins were highly-regarded by people in medieval Finland and Russia, where they were used widely as an exchange medium. The Russians, in fact, killed so many squirrels for their pelts that they reduced the population to the extent that it helped to mitigate the spread of deadly plagues, which were common in medieval times.