The history of money concerns the development of means of carrying out transactions involving a medium of exchange. Money is any clearly identifiable object of value that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts within a market, or which is legal tender within a country. While money is always a medium of exchange, not all mediums of exchange are money in the numismatic sense.
Significant evidence establishes many things were bartered in ancient markets that could be described as a medium of exchange. These included livestock and grain – things directly useful in themselves – but also merely attractive items such as cowrie shells or beads were exchanged for more useful commodities. However, such exchanges would be better described as barter, and the common bartering of a particular commodity (especially when the commodity items are not fungible) does not technically make that commodity “money” or a “commodity money” like the shekel – which was both a coin representing a specific weight of barley, and the weight of that sack of barley.
Due to the complexities of ancient history (ancient civilizations developing at different paces and not keeping accurate records or having their records destroyed), and because the ancient origins of economic systems precede written history, it is impossible to trace the true origin of the invention of money and the transition from “ barter systems” to the “ monetary systems“. Further, evidence in the histories supports the idea that money has taken two main forms divided into the broad categories of money of account (debits and credits on ledgers) and money of exchange (tangible media of exchange made from wood, paper, bamboo, metal, etc.), and it is debated which was created first.
Regarding money of account, the tally stick can reasonably be described as a very primitive ledger – the oldest of which dates to the Aurignacian, about 30,000 years ago. While it may not be reasonable to conclude the most ancient tally sticks were used to keep accounting records in the monetary system sense of the term, their existence does show that “accounting” – keeping a written record of things counted – is far more ancient than many people assume. David Graeber proposes that money as a unit of account was invented when the unquantifiable obligation “I owe you one” transformed into the quantifiable notion of “I owe you one unit of something”. In this view, money emerged first as credit and only later took the form of a medium of exchange.
Regarding money of exchange, the use of representative money historically pre-dates the invention of coinage. In the ancient empires of Egypt, Babylon, India and China, the temples and palaces often had commodity warehouses which issued certificates of deposit as evidence of a claim upon a portion of the goods stored in the warehouses. Because these “claim tickets” could be redeemed at the warehouse for the commodity they represented, they were able to be bartered in the markets as if they were the commodity.
While not the oldest form of money of exchange, various metals (both common and precious metals) were also used in both barter systems and monetary systems and the historical use of metals provides some of the clearest illustration of how the barter systems gave birth to monetary systems. The Romans’ use of bronze, while not among the more ancient examples is well documented, and it illustrates this transition clearly. First, the “aes rude” (rough bronze) was used. This was a heavy weight of unmeasured bronze used in what was properly a barter system — the barter-ability of the bronze was related exclusively to its usefulness in blacksmithing and it was bartered with the intent of being turned into tools. The next historical step was bronze in bars that had a 5-pound pre-measured weight (presumably to make barter easier and more fair), called “aes signatum” (signed bronze), which is where debate arises between if this is still the barter system or now a monetary system. Finally, there is a clear break from the use of bronze in barter into its undebatable use as money because of lighter measures of bronze not intended to be used as anything other than coinage for transactions. The aes grave (heavy bronze) (or As) is the start of the use of coins in Rome, but not the oldest known example metal coinage.