From the barter trade in ancient Mesopotamia to the “capitalism of nothingness” of the 21st century, part I, by Luis Martínez-Fernández

A day between 2063 and 2060 BC. AD, in the extinct Sumerian city of Drehem, on the outskirts of the also extinct city of Nippur (in present-day Iraq), a public scribe recorded the shedding of 574 cowhides. In exchange of what ? The cuneiform tablet does not say so, but it could have been silver, textiles, pottery, or any number of tangible valuables. Another clay tablet, dated to the sixth year of Amar-Suen (2039 BC), reflects the payment of wages to 366 day labourers, possibly temple construction workers, receiving a indefinite quantity of goods. It could be barley, clothes, dates (the fruit) or beer. Such was the pre-coinage barter system of the ancient Mesopotamians.

Fast forward about 4,080 years and read this week’s economic headlines. World’s richest man, Elon Musk, protagonist of history’s greatest buyer’s remorse drama, told senior Twitter executives that ‘bankruptcy isn’t out of the question’; Sam Bankman-Fried, the eccentric founder of cryptocurrency firm FTX, sees a $32 billion valuation crash in 3-4 days. Wikipedia has already updated (downgraded) it from “billionaire” to “former billionaire”.

So how did we go from bartering goats for barley and beer for labor to what is increasingly becoming a nothingness economy, where PayPal generates $7 billion in revenue every quarter by charging fees for digital money transactions; and so-called influencers (an unfortunate term) monetize (another unfortunate term) uploaded dancing and daring videos to TikTok and other digital dumps of nothingness.

Well, it’s a long history punctuated with pivotal moments that include the emergence of money, money lending, for-profit trading, stock companies, the futures market, the internet, and more. recently, cryptocurrency.


When cows (Bos taurus) and other forms of livestock were first domesticated around 10,500 years ago in the Middle East and later in the Indus Valley region (Bos indicus), they became a valuable and practical form of proto-currency. The Latin word for money, “pecunia”, is derived from “pecus”, Latin for cattle. The English words “cattle” and “chattel” (movable property) share a common etymology with “capitalism”: the medieval Latin word “capital” (property or stock). In present-day southern Sudan, members of the Mundari and Dinka tribes still use cattle as currency, dowry, and to pay fines in dispute resolution procedures conducted by tribal elders. Due to the prevalence of cattle rustling, herders are armed with long automatic weapons, as if protecting a bank vault.

Other forms of ancient currency include salt, which was used in Greece to buy slaves, hence the phrase “not worth its weight in salt”. In Rome, soldiers were often paid in salt. The Latin term “salarium argentum” means salty silver, and “argentum” translates to “silver”, which was used to mint dinars and other denominations of currency.

Unlike salt, which is essential in human nutrition, and livestock, which have intrinsic value as transport animals and sources of meat, milk, fat, leather, horn and much more, later forms of nonmonetary money had symbolic (arbitrary) value. This was the case with gold and silver, for example, because of their rarity. Around 1200 BC. In China, the rest of Asia and the Indian subcontinent, cowries (no relation to cows; they are a type of shell) became the preferred form of currency. The pre-Columbian Aztecs and Mayans gave cocoa beans a special value, contradicting many parents’ warning that money doesn’t grow on trees. When English explorer Thomas Cavendish landed on the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1587, he raided a Spanish customs office which included 400 bags of cocoa beans, each bag valued at approximately 10 silver crowns ( or 1/4 pound).

Numismatists agree that the oldest coins date from 610-600 BC. AD, minted in Lydia, present-day Turkey. Made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, these early coins were struck only on one side with images of roaring lions, emblematic of the Lydian kings. The use of coins quickly spread throughout the Greek world and in Persia.

Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History” and the forthcoming book “When the World Turned Upside Down: Politics, Culture, and the Unimaginable Event of 2019-2022.” Readers can attach it to [email protected] To learn more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read articles by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

Photo credit: 652234 at Pixabay

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