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What if everything started with bartering?

Barter has existed since man appeared on Earth. It began as soon as a sufficiently intelligent being could understand that he could exchange a flint against a buffalo hide without having to go hunting himself …

The origin of the barter is confused with that of the man. But in the Paleolithic era, the survival economy of hunters could not give rise to important exchanges.

In the Neolithic, with the advent of agriculture and livestock, men began to exchange their surplus on the basis of barter. Trade therefore preceded the trade of merchant. This village production economy will quickly evolve as evidenced by traces of traffic already taking place over long distances. Thus, stones were exported in the form of rough blades that the local craftsmen finished to cut. Inventories have been discovered which seem to indicate that there already existed a sort of “commercial network”. Several examples can be cited: the obsidian used on the island of Cyprus came from a distant volcano of Anatolia (Turkey); the yellow flint of Touraine (France) was exported to Switzerland.


Barter has always compensated for the absence of a common currency.

Riders of the seas and intrepid navigators, the Phoenicians, from the 8th century BC, pushed their investigations far outside the Mediterranean. In the 5th century BC, the Greek Herodotus in his “Histories” explains their technique: “When they landed their goods, they put them in line along the shore, re-embark on their ships, and smoke The natives, seeing this smoke, go to the seashore, deposit gold, which they offer in exchange for the cargo, and return at a distance.The Carthaginians disembark, examine the gold; it seems to them equivalent to the cargo, they remove it and go away, and if it does not seem equivalent to them, they go back on their vessels and stick to it. The natives come near and add the gold to what they have deposited, until they have satisfied them. Neither party, say the Carthaginians, defraud. ”

In the Cassiterides, near Great Britain, the Phoenicians exchanged pottery, salt, and copper utensils for the products of the tin mines. This pewter from the Cassiterides islands also supplied the craftsmen’s workshops of Magna Graecia (Sicily and Southern Italy). The vase of Vix offered in the 5th century BC by the Greek bronzers to their Celtic commercial intermediaries attests to these commercial networks throughout Western Europe.

In the middle Ages

For its part, Ibn Battuta, a great Arab traveler of the fourteenth century, does not fail to point out the exchange practices he observed: “Blacks used salt in commerce as gold or silver are used elsewhere They cut it into small pieces and use it to buy or sell. ” It should be known in this regard that the Ethiopians paid their taxes in salt bars until 1920!

In the sixteenth century, when the boats of European explorers accosted unknown lands, they proposed glassware for fresh food. But others established the triangular trade based on the scandalously successful exchange of black slaves from Guinea for old rifles and colored glass beads …

At the time of the colonists

In a very significant text of 1874 that highlights the role of barter in the great adventure of exploring the African continent, Lieutenant Cameron tells us how he had to go to get a boat. “Said’s man wanted to be paid in ivory and I did not have any, I was told that Ibn Selib had ivory and that he wanted some stuff, but unfortunately I had no more money. I did not say much about it, but Ibn Guerib, who had some material, was lacking the wire I had, and I gave him the amount of the wire. copper, he paid me in cloth that I passed to Ibn Selib, he gave the equivalent in ivory to the agent Said … and I had the boat!

Barter of useful “coins”

Barter punctuates our history near and far. Although it has long been the only means of exchange between people and between peoples, barter has gradually been refined by taking objects or animals as pieces of exchange. Barter stakes our history near and far. Although it has long been the only means of exchange between people and between peoples, barter has gradually been refined by taking objects or animals as exchange coins.

Above, we have seen that barter has existed since man appeared on the earth. This mode of exchange has indeed started as soon as a sufficiently intelligent being could understand that he could exchange a flint against a buffalo skin without having to go and hunt him himself …

Exchanges of objects, crops, tools, food and even slaves have crossed history and continents. But to improve and facilitate barter, man quickly used objects or animals recognized by all as exchange coins: it is the “primitive money”. These objects are accepted as payment either because their utility gives them value or because their rarity provokes greed.

In ancient times, the “useful money” was mainly food that could be preserved (rice, tea, cereals) or means of work (livestock, tools).
In the early days of the ancient Greek or Roman world, oxen were exchanged for both food and labor. Thus, in Rome, the first bronze ingots (ae rude) were poured into a mold in which the shape of an ox or a pig appeared. Let us point out here that we always use the pecuniary word which comes to us from the Latin word pecus, the cattle … and in Hebrew, keseph, designating the currency but also the sheep. Today, in East Africa and New Guinea, livestock are still frequently used as payment.

The first real bargaining chip was the cowrie shells, which thrive in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean in the tropics.
Already used in China as “money” 3,000 years ago, cowries have been called to play the same role in India and Thailand, in West and East Africa. Of relatively regular shape and size, they are simple to count.

Rites and offerings

Various objects sometimes referred to as “primitive money” serve ritual purposes as offerings to a deity or a need for social prestige. They are not always intended for daily purchases, necessarily limited.

Thus, the Kissi pennies played a very interesting mixed role. They are found in Liberia, West Africa, where they continued to be used by black tribes until around 1930, long after the introduction of modern money into the country. These pennies have the shape of long iron rods flattened at one end. A form probably derived from a tool previously in use. Kissi pennies were still accepted, given the utility of metal to make weapons and tools. They were also used for traditional exchanges at weddings.

In a similar way, there were metal objects in the form of a triangular hoe or spade, exactly like an ace of spades. They were also widely accepted as a method of payment especially for weddings, even though they were too light and fragile to serve as tools.

It is interesting to note in this connection that the shape chosen by the Chinese to make their first coin in the 5th century BC was also that of small knives or small hoes. The Swahili civilization, a mixture of Arabia and Africa, practiced trade with the Far East and China well before the arrival of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean. The jade green celadon (Chinese porcelain) of distant Cathay still adorns the ruins of the raw earth mosques of the old ports of Kilwa or Lamu (Kenya’s northern coast). They were exchanged for turtle scales, rhinoceros horns and ivory …

Finally, the silver or gold metal was long weighed for trade, sometimes in the form of ingot. In Mesopotamia, circa 2000 BC JC, there were official price lists indicating the quantities of commodities corresponding to certain weights of money.

To avoid weighing and the inconveniences of bartering, it is in the kingdom of Lydia where King Croesus reigns and where the river Pactole (in present-day Turkey) reigns was invented at the end of the 7th century BC. JC the first coins … but that’s another story!