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But whatever the format, human beings have long used currency as a means of exchange, a method of payment, a standard of value, a store of wealth and a unit of account.
As an anthropologist who’s made discoveries of ancient currency in the field, I’m interested in how money evolved in human civilization – and what these archaeological finds can tell us about trade and interaction between far-flung groups.
A hand axe (or handaxe) is a prehistoric stone tool with two faces that is the longest-used tool in human history. It is characteristic of the lower Acheulean and middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian) periods.
Its technical name (biface) comes from the fact that the archetypical model is generally bifacial Lithic flake and almond-shaped (amygdaloidal).
This coin was issued by Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty.
People used different forms of currency to mobilize resources, reduce risks and create alliances and friendships in response to specific social and political conditions.
The abundance and nearly universal evidence of movement of exotic goods over diverse regions inhabited by people who were independent of each other – from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists, to farmers and city dwellers – points to the significance of currency as a uniting principle. For example, Americans who lived in the Early Formative Period dating from 1450 to 500 B. used obsidian, mother-of-pearl shell, iron ore and two kinds of pottery as currency to trade across the Americas in one of the earliest examples of a successful global trade.
The same patterns unfold today with the modern relationship between China and Africa, now more intertwined and unequal than when Admiral Zheng He first brought coins from China in a diplomatic gesture, as a symbolic extension of friendship across the distance separating the two.
In our time, possession of cash currency differentiates the rich from the poor, the developed from the developing, the global north from the emerging global south.