The use of clay to make figurines has been detected among the artifacts of our ancestors as early as 30,000 years ago in an area that is now part of the Czech Republic. It appears that the use of clay for making various objects and eventually small vessels related to food preparation and storage was independently hit upon in several places, and on every continent, over the next 20,000 years. But for some reason, it does not appear to have made it into an area that arches around most of the "land between the rivers" portion of the Fertile Crescent until quite a bit later - sometime around 9,500 years ago.
Any explanation for why the use of pottery was so slow to take hold in this arching region must remain somewhat speculative. We do know that trade existed across that boundary, and that when the leap out of the Neolithic began either within that region of just to its north, the development was explosively rapid, because somewhere in that region or just to the north was the Proto-Indo-European homeland.
It is impossible to say exactly what the pressures or influences were that spurred two radically different, yet highly influential cultures which were so close to each other. The people in the north tamed the horse, made the first wheeled carts, and spread bits of their language through an enormous portion of the ancient world. While they were doing this, the people to the south came up with mud bricks, terraforming for irrigated farming, flood control, and urban defense, along with the seeds of what would become money and written language.
Why did these changes happen when they did? Early humans had lived through similar dramatic climatic changes at least twice before. But this time, as the ice receded and climate changes force mass migrations two other things were different as well. One is that the population of humans was many times greater than what it had been at the end of the two previous glacial advances. And, we had managed to kill off much of the megafauna of the Pleistocene. As we emerged from the last glacial advance, the adaptations we had to make in order to survive were much more far reaching than anything we had previously encountered. It was adapt of die, and so we adapted.
The southern or Mesopotamian cultural region added one additional technological discovery, or at least became the leading practitioners of it. This was metallurgy, but it would not emerge in a meaningful way until about 500 years after the use of those clay tokens began. The first metals to be separated from their ores or worked from nuggets were ones that are easily recognized because even as raw ores or nuggets they are bright and shiny, or at least the little flakes of them that can be readily seen embedded in the surfaces of other rocks also have a color and glint in the sunlight that draws the human gaze. These are copper, gold, silver, and in some areas a natural mixing of gold and silver called electrum. By 4,000 BCE, lead, iron, tin, and mercury would be recognized, but the required smelting processes would be slow to develop, especially for iron, which requires very high heat and some non-obvious hammering to drive out the impurities and get it to a usable form. We don't know exactly when it happened, but sometime between roughly 5,500 and 4,200 years ago, little bits of gold and silver, often in the form of wire, started to be traded as commodities, and values by weight of them were stated as being equivalent to large quantities of farm produce. Written records of transactions in various temples describe these equivalencies.
Using relatively scarce bits of various shiny metals as money was problematic right from the beginning. The supply never quite met the demand. Also, money in the form of either bullion or later coins, had two practical needs which were at odds with each other. In a monetized economy that is depended on some form of hard currency, an acceptable form of the currency has to be present and change hands during transactions. And yet, it must also be kept socked away and not used so it can serve the function of providing storage for the value of work previously done. Spending and savings pull in two very different directions. Religion was right in the middle of this tension.
A key function of early religious shrines was to serve as a location for the storage of community and royal wealth. Doing one's civic duty by making expected contributions to support communal and administrative needs was seen as a sacrifice in the context of religion. In many religious traditions, sacrifice is a moral obligation. Initially, tithing and taxation were one and the same thing. The idea that religious leaders and political leaders or royalty would be separate or intertwined would wax and wane between the two right through the medieval period. To this day, surviving royal houses, especially in the United Kingdom and some Muslim countries, retain vestiges of this on again, off again blending of church and state.
As we covered in the previous section on Markets and Taxes, taxation to support rulers and shamans, and to "pay" for public works had been around for many thousands of years before the first money came on the scene. That's the "how" of the birth of taxation. Now let's look at the "where.". Making one's expected contributions of tangible goods to one's community in the ancient middle east was typically done at a temple structure of some sort. Taxation was born in the halls of religion. This is a very important point to keep in mind. Religion's involvement in the evolution of money is a recurrent theme.
Taxes came before the earlies forms of clay money. The earliest forms of clay money came before coins. And someplace between these two developments, a very primitive form of banking emerged within a community's sacred precinct.
The idea of having more than one religious tradition within a single community is something that would not appear, as far as we know, until sometime in the fourth millennium BCE. From what we can tell of human cultures prior to about 1,000 BCE, the idea that there was a difference between the sacred and the secular did not really exist. This lack of separation between the secular and the religious would persist in rural areas at least through the end of the Iron Age and the beginnings of the Roman Empire, and perhaps longer. There was a continuity to the ideas that guided people's lives in a way that one can probably only find in a cloistered religious community in the modern world.
Temples or sacred precincts in the earliest cities were not just another civic place or building, they were often the only such place. In such a world the storing of community wealth someplace else would have been thought of as a very peculiar thing to do, except perhaps to hide it someplace when an attack might seem imminent. Of course the wealth of a community would be kept in the temple. Thus from their very beginnings, temples were also communal treasuries.
Christians may be familiar with the story of Jesus becoming upset at the notion of the temple in Jerusalem serving as the gathering place of the local banking establishment. In his day, at least in urban areas, an often tense separation of church and state had been in place for over a thousand years in the eastern Mediterranean. But for many thousands of years before that change had occurred, if someone had suggested that banking was an inappropriate activity at the local temple, everyone would have looked at a person making such a suggestion as being really odd. The very thought of such a separation would have been viewed as being very peculiar indeed. Of course people went to the temple to sort out exchanges of precious metals, because that's where they were kept. In fact, as we shall see, the idea of metal coins was invented in temples and very much tied to the local religion. But, we are jumping ahead a bit. Let's now take a look at some more of the problems associated with the use of clay tokens as money.
In the community market places of the ancient Sumer of 9,500 years ago, once the problems of counterfeiting and record keeping had been worked out, it became possible to trade over an ever widening network of communities. The use of some sort of accounting system to guarantee the value of the clay tokens would only scale so far. At some point it started to fail altogether. A better form of money was needed, so that one did not have to worry about the scarcity or counterfeiting problem in the absence of those tedious clay tablet records. Of course, in the late 20th century CE instant access to accurate records to support financial transactions would return, but for thousands of years between the the emergence of those first clay tokens and the development of the internet, something else would be required.
The solution to the need for more flexible money developed in parallel with with those first Mesopotamian cities and their monetary systems. It was found in a human behavior that is strikingly similar to that of crows, trout, and a very small number of other species. We are all attracted to little bits of shiny things we find lying around (or seemingly floating in the case of fish).
By at least 7,000 BCE we were picking up bits of metal and taking them home with us. This behavior would gradually lead us to drift into what would become some advanced skills in working with bits of metal. By 4,000 BCE we were using fire to soften metals for working them into new shapes. By no later than 3,500 BCE, we were extracting metals from ore and treating them as a precious commodity used for personal adornment, decorations on other objects, and a few early tools. Otzi, the famous iceman found in the Alps in 1991 has been dated to around 3230 BCE, and he had with him a beautiful copper celt, which was an early form of an axe.
The use of crow bait as a kind of money started happening perhaps as early 3000 bce. But, it wasn't in the form of coins. It was just raw metal in a form we call bullion. Metals would not become true money as we think of it in the form of coins having a standard denomination for a very long time. But, a common notion of value for specific weights of various metals did develop rather quickly.
By the middle of the third millennium we have textual evidence for equivalent values between some small amount of silver and a significant amount of grain. Scales used for exchanges involving various weights of metal Getting good dates for metal finds in archaeology can be very difficult. The earliest system of standardized weights and measures that we know about was developed by the Harappan civilization of the Indus River Valley. The National Museum of India has one of their scales (they also made rulers). The dates for the Harappan artifacts is a rather broad potential range of 2600-1900 BCE. References and illustrations of similar devices with similar date ranges have been found in Egypt and China. Also, from the Amarna period in Egypt, which was around 1340 BCE, we have a hoard of silver which includes bits of wire in what appear to be various standardized lengths. The notion of using somewhat standardized bits of metal in exchange transactions spread throughout the ancient world in the Mediterranean, went on pretty much unchanged for as much as 2,000 years.
Our attraction to this stuff, and its relative scarcity partially solved one of the big problems with the clay tokens. It's just too easy to make some tokens that have no connection to anything that someone produced for sale in the market. Bullion combined with scales to measure it enabled commerce across vast territories and among many different cultures, all because humans, like crows and some fish, like shiny bits of metal, and shiny bits of metal are more scarce than the things to which humans wanted to do with them.
After using crow bait as a medium of exchange for at least 2,000 years, the move toward standard shapes starting with bits of wire would eventually lead to something more artistic. Bullion used in commerce before the invention of coins was not money in the way we think of it today. Rather, it was a scarce commodity that was valued by those in power. Because it was valued and small compared to things like bushels of grain, it could be much more conveniently carried, just like those old clay tokens, but with somewhat less of a risk of counterfeiting. Gold and silver can still be debased in several ways, but it is much more difficult to do this with these precious metals than it was with clay tokens. But it should be stressed, that only a tiny portion of the population had anything to do with the growing accumulation and trade in metals. Metal money was definitely for the very few.