Broke? Try Paying Like Our Ancestors, With Shells, Beans

By Harry Kimball,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 21, 2009 2:43 PM CDT
A wampum belt.   (Getty Images)
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(Newser) – Sure, the global economy might collapse spectacularly and send us all back to a barter system. But that’s inefficient, Greg Sabin writes on Mental Floss, and “almost all civilizations have come up with currencies.” A sampling of what might be in your wallet next week:

  • Shells: "From China to Africa to the Americas," most people used "small, transportable, and rather unremarkable specimens," with value added by "the time and effort spent on tying the shells together to form belts, necklaces, and tapestries."

  • Feathers: "On a small Pacific island" the "only way to project power is by wearing a pimp-tastic feather cape that conveys authority," and "feathers, then, became a prized commodity."
  • Cacao beans: "The small, rather plain looking little pods had a pretty regular exchange rate throughout Mayan civilization in which you could buy a tamale for a few beans or the pleasure of a lady’s company for 10."
  • Wampum: Similar to shells, sure, but "the beads were often tied together in intricate belts that created pictures, told stories, and basically acted as a memory aid in the oral tradition. It was not until contact with the Europeans that the beads actually became currency unto themselves."
  • Abalone: "The gastropods are so valued in Asia" even today, Sabin writes, "that Chinese gangs are reported to be using the chewy creatures as trade for shipments of drugs, guns, and other contraband material."
(Read more currency stories.)