The Origin of Money – 4

2. The First IT Revolution

In order for something like the general-purpose universally-applicable money that we know to form, two critical innovations were needed: numeracy/literacy and standardized measurement.

In order to manage the redistributive economy of ancient Mesopotamia, increasingly sophisticated “information-processing” technologies were invented. We might call this the “First IT Revolution,” and it eventually ushered in writing and mathematics. It is now known that these originally developed in the service of keeping track of goods and labor for this economy– accounting, in other words:

This prehistoric communication revolution began some 9000 Years ago among the early agricultural communities of northern Mesopotamia and Syria. Like the invention of the computer, it involved the creation of an ingenious device which served both to transmit information and to record it for future reference.

In Neolithic Mesopotamia this new device served also to identify property and to ensure its security, and in that sense to signal to us not only that society was becoming more differentiated (that is, that there were those with goods to protect or secure) but that man could no longer trust his fellow man…

…the earliest stage of recording numeracy utilized the geometric token, followed by the use of the complex token and bulla, and still later, with an increasing complexity of communication needs, the cylinder seal was used for securing and identifying property; and finally, the seminal tool of bureaucratic administration, the inscribed tablet.

A theoretical account of this process was developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat beginning in the 1970’s. She realized that the earliest shapes in cuneiform writing were based on the shapes of tokens found on archaeological sites. This led her to formulating the following sequence describing the development of writing:

1. Small clay tokens about 1-3 centimeters in length shaped into simple geometric forms are found scattered throughout Mesopotamian archaeological sites after about 9000 BC. The tokens represented various primary commodities –grain, jars of olive oil, sheep, beer, etc. They came in a variety of sizes and shapes–cones cylinders, spheres, ovoids, disks and tetrahedrons (three dimensional triangles), often covered with various dots and markings.

Simple tokens represented basic items such as grain and cattle, whereas more incised and perforated tokens represented services and manufactured items. One might think of game pieces (which at one point they were believed to be), or animal crackers. This allowed for a much greater control over varied items than just simple notches on tally sticks. The tokens could be matched one-to-one with the various standardized goods and services.

Number was represented by a phenomenon called correspondence (one-to-one) counting. Five ovoids meant five jars of olive oil, three tokens meant three jars, and so on; there was no abstract notion of “fiveness” apart from the thing being counted. The tokens were “non-lingual,” that is, no matter what language you spoke, both parties could understand that that five ovoid tokens meant five jars of olive oil:

The direct antecedent of the Mesopotamian script was a recording device consisting of clay tokens of multiple shapes. The artifacts, mostly of geometric forms such as cones, spheres, disks, cylinders and ovoids, are recovered in archaeological sites dating 8000–3000 BC.

The tokens, used as counters to keep track of goods, were the earliest code—a system of signs for transmitting information. Each token shape was semantic, referring to a particular unit of merchandise. For example, a cone and a sphere stood respectively for a small and a large measure of grain, and ovoids represented jars of oil.

The repertory of some three hundred types of counters made it feasible to manipulate and store information on multiple categories of goods…The token system showed the number of units of merchandize [sic] in one-to-one correspondence, in other words, the number of tokens matched the number of units counted: x jars of oil were represented by x ovoids. Repeating ‘jar of oil’ x times in order to express plurality is unlike spoken language. [1]

2. The economy expanded and became more complex as urbanization proceeded. The clay tokens also began to get more numerous and more elaborate, tracking the various “secondary commodities” of the Mesopotamian economy –wool, clothing, metals, honey, bread, oil, beer, textiles, garments, rope, mats, carpets, furniture, jewelry, tools, hides, perfume, and so on.

The tokens represented the various items stored in the “holy storehouse” of the temple. Standardized tokens could be used for keeping track of inventory, or recording tax payments, and even for establishing future transactions–essentially forming the first economic contracts. Tokens could represent anticipated tax payments, deferred payments, or a provide a record of previous payments. They could also provide for secure transmission of goods between stewards.

In order for this to work, some method needed to be developed to keep the transaction secure, that is, safe from tampering after the fact. Two methods were devised to do this. One was using tokens with perforations in them and stringing them together with a cord like a bracelet or necklace, and binding the ends of the cord with a lump of clay called a bulla. This prevented tokens from being added or removed to the string without breaking the clay “seal.”

The other involved sealing them inside a hollow clay “envelope” about 3-5 cm in diameter also called a bulla. The tokens were placed inside and the opening was pinched shut, and then the envelope was then fired. After it was fired, tokens could not be added or removed without breaking open the bulla.

Officials marked the bullae with clay seals testifying to the authenticity of the transaction. There were two types of seals-stamp seals and cylinder seals, which made impressions by being rolled across the wet clay. The seals were unique to the steward and usually depicted some type of religious imagery. The outer surface of the clay envelopes were often covered with seals, probably to make sure that a hole could not be made to add or remove items from the bulla without an official knowing. If any dispute arose about the contents of the bulla, both parties to the contract could break open the clay envelope and verify what was inside.

For some unknown reason, plain tokens were secured by envelopes, while more complex ones were secured with a cord. Both the seals and the tokens are found in burials, indicating that certain designated individuals were in charge of managing the surplus—a sure sign of burgeoning class inequality. Seals found buried with children indicate the transmission of intergenerational status.

3. Because it was unknown exactly what was inside the clay envelopes once they were fired, scribes made impressions in the outer surface of the wet clay to indicate what was inside. These markings are the first definite signs of writing in the sense of using abstract shapes impressed in clay to represent specific items and quantities. Number was still indicated by correspondence counting rather than abstract numerals.

After four millennia, the token system led to writing. The transition from counters to script took place simultaneously in Sumer and Elam, present-day western Iran when, around 3500 BC, Elam was under Sumerian domination. It occurred when tokens, probably representing a debt, were stored in envelopes until payment. These envelopes made of clay in the shape of a hollow ball had the disadvantage of hiding the tokens held inside. Some accountants, therefore, impressed the tokens on the surface of the envelope before enclosing them inside, so that the shape and number of counters held inside could be verified at all times. These markings were the first signs of writing. [1]

4. By the middle of the fourth millennium, instead of just being recorded on the bullae, impressions of tokens are recorded on flat clay tablets and fired. By 3200 BC, puffy clay tablet “receipts” are found recording various disbursements and transactions in temple archives. The tablets simply list numbers of quantities of items without purpose or context. The level of detail recorded by the tablets varied according to administrative level—more detail was recorded by scribes at higher administrative levels.

About 3200 BC, once the system of impressed signs was understood, clay tablets—solid cushion-shaped clay artifacts bearing the impressions of tokens—replaced the envelopes filled with tokens. The impression of a cone and a sphere token, representing measures of grain, resulted respectively in a wedge and a circular marking which bore the same meaning as the tokens they signified. They were ideograms—signs representing one concept. The impressed tablets continued to be used exclusively to record quantities of goods received or disbursed. They still expressed plurality in one-to-one correspondence. [1]

Eventually the clay tablets alone served to record transactions, taking the place of bullae. The tablets become the primary means of recording past and future transactions, even though both “technologies” continued to be used side-by-side for millennia. For unknown reasons, the clay tablet method was extensively adopted in southern Mesopotamia, whereas tokens continued to be the main method used in northern Mesopotamia. Clay tablet records were stored in temple archives, managing payments, contracts, receipts, loans, debts, and so on.

5. Eventually, when the quantities under consideration become too big for correspondence counting to work, symbols were established to separate quantity from the thing being counted – a symbol for “five” and “sheep” are combined together instead of repeating “sheep” five times. These numerals impressed in clay were derived from the shape of the token itself.

Early numerals were not abstract, but derived their value from association with the items they counted. The Sumerians used 60 different number signs grouped in a dozen or so metrological systems. For example, one system counted discrete objects like sheep, while other systems measured areas or volumes.

At the same time, the clay markings evolved into abstract symbols (pictographs) made with a wedge-shaped stylus rather than impressions of tokens. The wedge-shaped pictographs derived from the object they described:

Pictographs—signs representing tokens traced with a stylus rather than impressed—appeared about 3100 BC. These pictographs referring to goods mark an important step in the evolution of writing because they were never repeated in one-to-one correspondence to express numerosity.

Besides them, numerals—signs representing plurality—indicated the quantity of units recorded. For example, ‘33 jars of oil’ were shown by the incised pictographic sign ‘jar of oil’, preceded by three impressed circles and three wedges, the numerals standing respectively for ‘10’ and ‘1’.

The symbols for numerals were not new. They were the impressions of cones and spheres formerly representing measures of grain, which then had acquired a second, abstract, numerical meaning. The invention of numerals meant a considerable economy of signs since 33 jars of oil could be written with 7 rather then [sic] 33 markings. [1]

Sometime around the end of the third millennium BC during the Ur III period, a sexigecimal (base 60) place value notation system was devised. Each place represents a multiple of sixty (just as in our system, each place represents a multiple of ten. Sixty is the first number that 1,2,3,4,5, and 6 all factor into. It’s thought that counting was done by marking the phalanges of outstretched fingers in each hand with the thumb (three phalanges times four outstretched fingers). This could be repeated five times, using the fingers of the other hand to keep track (5 x 12 = 60). Base-60 actually has quite a few advantages. 60 is highly composite and easily divisible by 12 numbers simplifying fractional/decimal notation.

…the origin of the base 12 and of the related base 60 is an often-recurring question, even to non-mathematicians. The usual arithmetic (based on the divisors of 12) and or astronomical explanations (based on the number of moon-months) both are a posterior…

….a counting technique that considers parts of the fingers to represent the numbers from 1 to 12, is still in use in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indochina, India. The thumb of a hand counts the bones in the fingers of the same hand. Four fingers, with each three little bones, evidently yield 12 as a counting unit. The thumb itself is the counting tool, and its bones are not considered. Also, each dozen is counted by the fingers of the other hand, including the thumb, and the multiple 5 x 12 = 60 provides an additional indication of the often simultaneous occurrence of the duodecimal and sexagesimal base…

This physiological explanation for the duodecimal base is only a hypothesis, but number words as present day tribes in Africa use them, provide further evidence. N. W. Thomas [Tho] reported on such number words in his study of the West-African tribes in the region of the actual Nigeria. Between the rivers Benue and Gurara, which flow into the river Niger more westwards, live the Yasgua, the Koro and the Ham.

This explanation is not posterior like the arithmetical or the astronomical ones. This duodecimal base was indeed a practical one for what these early civilisations wanted to count or to represent. In the matriarchal societies, they could associate the number 1 to the woman, the number 3 to the man, and 4 to the union of woman and man. Or, in after some rather general evolution, they designated the male genitals by the number 3, and the genital symbol of women by 4, making 7 the symbol of their union. The number 4 seems to have been the most widespread of the mystical numbers. It was established by associations with colours, with social organisation, and with various customs among numerous tribes. The use of six as a mystical or sacred number was less extensively distributed through history and throughout the world than the four-cult, but sometimes a mythology past from quarters cult to a six cult. For example, the four cardinal points (such as North, South, East, West) are simply augmented by the addition of two other points (such as the zenith, above and nadir, below). On the other hand, the counting skills they obtained in this way, allowed them to note that there are 13 (moon)-months in one (solar) year, and not 12. [2]

The Babylonian cuneiform was not a true sexagesimal system as in there were not 60 different symbols. They basically represented numbers in a hybrid base-60 of a base-10. For example, thirty was made by repeating the symbol for 10 three times, forty was 10 repeated four times, and so on. Base sixty was likely chosen for ease of time/value calculations based on the length of the Mesopotamian year (a 360-day ‘fiscal year” with 5-and-change days set aside for festivals and debt forgiveness). Our divisions of a circle (degrees) and hours/minutes are also derived from this Mesopotamian base sixty, and are still in use.

…the sexagecimal number system of Mesopotamia in the historical period must have arisen from a fusion of a decimal system and a duodecimal system, and possible of a third element based on twenty. The widespread evidence for the very early duodecimal system, especially in the diffusion of the practice of dividing into twelve parts the wide band of fixed stars through which the sun passes its annual revolution (the zodiac), and the association of this feature with painted pottery gardening would indicate that the duodecimal system was characteristic of the Highland Zone Neolithic peasant cultures. The decimal usage probably came from the Semite peoples within the Fertile Crescent. If a vigecimal system also entered the mixture, it might have come from the south or southeast, for there seem to be, in the substrata of Mesopotamian culture, elements of tropical forest origin from this direction. [3]

We continue to use this counting method for time, which may make it somewhat clearer. Think of the value holders like this: (Hours) : (Minutes) : (seconds).

01:00 = 60
01:01 = 61
02:00 = 120
It takes the 60th count to turn the next value holder 1. So,

Interestingly, there is some evidence that the markings on the Ishango bone are based on a base-12 number system.

A good account of this process is given in this BBC article: How the world’s first accountants counted on cuneiform

6. Eventually, the need for recording proper names in contracts gave rise to the establishment of phonetic alphabets where symbols represented not words, but spoken sounds, typically syllables. This was done by using the word attached to a symbol to represent sounds.

For example, when Coca-Cola first arrived in China, shopkeepers needed a way to represent this new product. There was no pre-existing ideogram for “Coca Cola” in Chinese. They used a combination of Chinese characters which phonetically spelled out the sounds “Ko-ka-ko-la.” Many of these signs used the character pronounced “la” meaning “wax.” This led to all sorts of nonsensical phrases when it was read out loud, such as “female horse fastened with wax,” “wax-flattened mare,” and, most famously, “bite the wax tadpole” (eventually the company provided an ‘official’ transcription meaning, roughly, “to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice”). Nonetheless, clearly phonetic sounds were separated from what the ideograms represented. In such a way one could begin to separate the sound of the word from the pictographic image of what it represented.

In a similar fashion, when the system became adopted by the Akkadian culture, and Akkadian became the lingua franca of commerce during the Bronze Age, the need to transcribe proper names in written contracts led to ideograms being used to represent sounds rather than concepts. Transactions could be described in writing rather than just items and numbers, making them more meaningful:

With state formation, new regulations required that the names of the individuals who generated or received registered merchandise were entered on the tablets.

The personal names were transcribed by the mean of logograms—signs representing a word in a particular tongue. Logograms were easily drawn pictures of words with a sound close to that desired (for example in English the name Neil could be written with a sign showing bent knees ‘kneel’).

Because Sumerian was mostly a monosyllabic language, the logograms had a syllabic value. A syllable is a unit of spoken language consisting of one or more vowel sounds, alone, or with one or more consonants. When a name required several phonetic units, they were assembled in a rebus fashion. A typical Sumerian name ‘An Gives Life’ combined a star, the logogram for An, god of heaven, and an arrow, because the words for ‘arrow’ and ‘life’ were homonyms. The verb was not transcribed, but inferred, which was easy because the name was common. Phonetic signs allowed writing to break away from accounting…

After 2600–2500 BC, the Sumerian script became a complex system of ideograms mixed more and more frequently with phonetic signs. The resulting syllabary—system of phonetic signs expressing syllables—further modeled writing on to spoken language. With a repertory of about 400 signs, the script could express any topic of human endeavor. Some of the earliest syllabic texts were royal inscriptions, and religious, magic and literary texts. [1]

Far away in Egypt, totemic symbols were adapted to represent these sounds, resulting in the creation of hieroglyphic script. Proper names were recorded, and eventually the sounds of Egyptian speech were written down to transcribe the entire spoken language. Hieroglyphs are found on buildings such as tombs and temples. Early transactions were recorded on pottery shards. Later, the invention of papyrus from sedges growing along the Nile lead to the first written paper scripts.

Phonetic signs to transcribe personal names…created an avenue for writing to spread outside of Mesopotamia…The first Egyptian inscriptions…consisted of ivory labels and ceremonial artifacts such as maces and palettes bearing personal names, written phonetically as a rebus, visibly imitating Sumer…This explains why the Egyptian script was instantaneously phonetic. It also explains why the Egyptians never borrowed Sumerian signs. Their repertory consisted of hieroglyphs representing items familiar in the Egyptian culture that evoked sounds in their own tongue.

The phonetic transcription of personal names also played an important role in the dissemination of writing to the Indus Valley where, during a period of increased contact with Mesopotamia, c. 2500 BC, writing appears on seals featuring individuals’ names and titles. In turn, the Sumerian cuneiform syllabic script was adopted by many Near Eastern cultures who adapted it to their different linguistic families and in particular, Semitic (Akkadians and Eblaites); Indo-European (Mitanni, Hittites, and Persians); Caucasian (Hurriansand Urartians); and finally, Elamite and Kassite. It is likely that Linear A and B, the phonetic scripts of Crete and mainland Greece, c. 1400–1200 BC, were also influenced by the Near East. [1]

7. This system transformed from syllables to the letters as we know them today and spread via the activities of Semitic merchants and traders operating in the eastern Mediterranean. These traders would been familiar with the accounting techniques of the Near East, and their business was conducted with strangers. Since these were strangers, you needed contracts, and so you needed ways to write names and forms of speech. This allowed writing and numbers to grow beyond their original roots in managing centralized economies.

Semitic traders simplified the system into easily written “scratches” to represent distinct consonant sounds. A small repeating number of these “letters” could represent any language the Phoenician traders encountered.

Most vowels were not written in this system, a tradition which persists to this day in the Semitic alphabets of Hebrew and Arabic (although vowel marks are sometimes added). This may seem odd, but it works: I bt y cn rd ths sntnc evn wtht vwls.

The invention of the alphabet about 1500 BC ushered in the third phase in the evolution of writing in the ancient Near East. The first, so-called Proto-Sinaitic or Proto-Canaanite alphabet, which originated in the region of present-day Lebanon, took advantage of the fact that the sounds of any language are few. It consisted of a set of 22 letters, each standing for a single sound of voice, which, combined in countless ways, allowed for an unprecedented flexibility for transcribing speech.

This earliest alphabet was a complete departure from the previous syllabaries. First, the system was based on acrophony—signs to represent the first letter of the word they stood for—for example an ox head (alpu) was ‘a,’ a house (betu) was b. Second, it was consonantal—it dealt only with speech sounds characterized by constriction or closure at one or more points in the breath channel, like b, d, l, m, n, p, etc. Third, it streamlined the system to 22 signs, instead of several hundred. [1]

In the decentralized world after the Bronze Age collapse, this new system took the place of the Linear A and B recording systems of the earlier palace economies.

Alphabets appear to have arisen in only a few places and diffused from there, as this Reddit comment points out:

The cuneiform alphabets of the Middle East were ledgers first, then evolved into words. Egyptian hieroglyphs were totemic first, then evolved numbers and words. Chinese Han characters started as divination marks on turtle shells and ox bones. The Mayans started recording calendar days, and that evolved into a syllabic alphabet. My guess is that recording abstract information is a natural product of structured civilisation, which grows around cereal-based agriculture. That’s the common theme between all of them. Simple writing systems and totemic pictographs are a common theme all round the world. Where they really come into their own is in a trade-based central civilisation.

The “democratization” of script was to have a profound influence on Greek culture. Rather than just remaining in the hands of temple scribes and priests, many more people could use letters and numbers up and down the social ladder. They were not under the exclusive control of one particular social class. Due to the democratization of words and numbers, economic planning passed out of the hands of temple scribes and priests and engendered a radically decentralized approach to economic life. This eventually lead to markets and metallic coinage similar to our own system, as we’ll see.

2. Systems of Measurement

The other crucial innovation of accounting was metrology: partitioning items into discrete units that are divisible by one another. Although we take such measurement for granted today, the creation of standardized weights and measures continued until well into the nineteenth century with the establishment of the system international (SI) units of meter (distance), second (time), kilogram (mass), kelvin (temperature), pascal (pressure), and others. Standard weights and measures are as critical to bureaucracy as are writing and numerals.

Standardization is a fundamental aspect of state formation that is often overlooked. In this review of James C. Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, Scott Alexander quotes Scott describing the difficulties faced by regional tax collectors in medieval Europe:

A hypothetical case of customary land tenure practices may help demonstrate how difficult it is to assimilate such practices to the barebones scheme of a modern cadastral map [land survey suitable for tax assessment][…]

Let us imagine a community in which families have usufruct rights to parcels of cropland during the main growing season. Only certain crops, however, may be planted, and every seven years the usufruct land is distributed among resident families according to each family’s size and its number of able-bodied adults. After the harvest of the main-season crop, all cropland reverts to common land where any family may glean, graze their fowl and livestock, and even plant quickly maturing, dry-season crops. Rights to graze fowl and livestock on pasture-land held in common by the village is extended to all local families, but the number of animals that can be grazed is restricted according to family size, especially in dry years when forage is scarce. Families not using their grazing rights can give them to other villagers but not to outsiders. Everyone has the right to gather firewood for normal family needs, and the village blacksmith and baker are given larger allotments. No commercial sale from village woodlands is permitted.

Trees that have been planted and any fruit they may bear are the property of the family who planted them, no matter where they are now growing. Fruit fallen from such tree, however, is the property of anyone who gathers it. When a family fells one of its trees or a tree is felled by a storm, the trunk belongs to the family, the branches to the immediate neighbors, and the “tops” (leaves and twigs) to any poorer villager who carries them off. Land is set aside for use or leasing out by widows with children and dependents of conscripted males. Usufruct rights to land and trees may be let to anyone in the village; the only time they may be let to someone outside the village is if no one in the community wishes to claim them. After a crop failure leading to a food shortage, many of these arrangements are readjusted.

Book Review: Seeing Like a State (Slate Star Codex)

Scott’s book reminds us just how much measurement and taxation are the harbingers of the coming of the state, even though these early states were not the impersonal professional bureaucracies that we associate with states today (China appears to have been the first to develop this). The creation of money and markets is what allowed for the state’s ability to channel resources to itself  to pay for soldiers and bureaucratic expertise, as we’ll see.

By the Babylonian period, complex time and material calculations were undertaken in the temples by officials in order to allow for mass production on a much larger scale than cottage industries. These activities, centered in the temples, were the first intentional surplus-generating activities to be undertaken by society. Such activities are not commonplace in traditional societies: production is mainly undertaken for subsistence and hoarding is explicitly discouraged.

Some tablets from the later Old Sumerian period detail bread baking, where a specific amount of bread is listed against the specification of its cereal ingredients, depending on quality as reflected in a production rate for a given type of bread. Other tablets included entries for bread and beer rations and the ingredients required to make them.

These tablets began by listing the names of individuals with the largest rations followed by those with smaller rations. At the end of the tablet, the amounts of bread and beer are totalled by type and the grand total for the flour and barley used was also recorded. The tablets were dated daily, and the scribes showed how the amount of flour corresponded exactly to the amount actually used in baking the bread, and the same applied to barley and beer…

…this checking of actual against theoretical amounts was “Perhaps the most important accounting operation introduced during the third millennium B.C.”…Deficits in one year, arising from shortage of actual amounts compared to theoretical amounts, were carried forward to the following year and were liable to later reimbursement…

…the entries record labour performance, along with theoretical credits and duties. The balancing of expected and actual labour performance was recorded at regular intervals for the foremen of the state-controlled labour force, using an accounting period of a 12-month-year, with each month being 30 days long, a time conception that corresponds exactly to that of ancient Egypt. Balances were carried forward to next periods; most frequently the balances were deficits (overdrawn) as the expected performances seem to have been “fixed as the maximum of what a foreman could reasonably demand of his workers”. Such balancing periodic entries were underpinned by some measure of standardisation of performance and a value equivalence system…[4]

In fact, the entire concept of leadership in these ancient societies appears to have been centered around concepts of fair and accurate standards of measurement, as Michael Hudson describes:

With writing and account-keeping came weights, measures, and standardizarion…Politically, the ideology of Mesopotamian cities was to create an evenly measured and “straight” cosmology of economic and social relations. Sumerian and Babylonian iconography represents rulers characteristically holding the measuring stick and coiled measuring rope to layout temple precincts. This defining royal task is illustrated on Gudea’s statues F and B in Lagash at the end of the third millennium. Such orientation aimed at grounding cities and their rule symbolically in the eternal regularities of natural order, as reflected in the celestial movements of the heavens.[5]

This “natural order” extended to the levies which were collected by the temples. This likely grew out of their role in coordinating the labor required to maintain the canal system which agriculture depended on. Their ability to accurately measure and plan future activities was a logical extension of their ability to scan the heavens and predict future floods and eclipses. From astronomy came the rest of their abilities.

These institutions were not dependent upon “taxpayer funds” unlike governments today; rather they were self-supporting enterprises, with prebends and dependent staff who were paid stipends (salaries) for their work. Because of their pro-social nature (they regularly aided widows and orphans), religious justification, and role in expanding the economy (they regularly produced goods for export), they were allowed to undertake activities such as charging rent and interest–the first written examples of this behavior. We might consider them to be the first antecedents of the modern business corporation (see future chapter).

What gave the ancient Sumerians the idea of charging one another interest? Linguistic evidence provides a clue. In the Sumerian language, the word for interest, mash, was also the term for calves. In ancient Greek, the word for interest, tokos, also refers to the offspring of cattle. The Latin term tecus, or flock, is the root of our word “pecuniary.” The Egyptian word for interest, like the Sumerian word, is ms, and means “to give birth.” All these terms point to the derivation of interest rates from the natural multiplication of livestock. If you lend someone a herd of thirty cattle for one year, you expect to be repaid with more than thirty cattle. The herd multiplies-the herder’s wealth has a natural rate of increase equal to the rate of reproduction of the livestock. If cattle were the standard currency, then loans in all comparable commodities would be expected to “give birth” as well. The idea of interest seems to be a natural one for an agricultural or pastoral society, but not so for hunter-gatherers. [6]

Just as with the scribes and viziers of ancient Egypt, a method had to be devised to standardize various tax, tithe, tribute, fines, and other payments owed to the central institutions from various entities. They also needed a way to evaluate how much was needed for time and material calculations. The way they accomplished this was to create a measurement unit, and to then use that unit to standardize the various goods and services produced by the diversifying Sumerian economy. In other words, a “unit of account.”

The earliest unit of account appears to have been a standard weight of a basket of barley, barley being the staple crop of the Sumerian economy. However, a more stable method was developed based on various weights of silver. This seems to have been related to silver’s role as a sacred substance whose storage and trade was controlled and manipulated by centralized institutions, that is, the temples and their high priests (what anthologists might call ‘prestige goods’):

…At about the same time as cities began to appear people started making ornaments out of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), copper and gold, metals found naturally in nature. Metals have an almost unique, natural, physical property; they reflect light. The only other material that stone-age humans would have come across that reflected light would have been water, which along with sunlight is the basis of life. The first time a human spotted a nugget of gold sparkling in a river bed they must have experienced a sense of awe, here was an object that seemed to capture life-giving sunlight and water.

Religiously significant metals became important as temple offerings and temples began accumulate large reserves. Followers of the religion would look to acquire the metal, to enable them to make an offering to the gods, and so the metal became the commodity in the most demand.

The Ancient Egyptians, who had easy access to gold, used Cypriot copper for their religious offerings while the Cypriots used Egyptian gold. In Mesopotamia, the metal of choice was silver. When ‘Currency Cranks’ or ‘Bullionists’ argue that the economy would be improved by reverting to a Gold Standard because gold has an ‘inherent value’ they need to explain where is the value in gold, apart from its inherent symbolic, representative, value.

We don’t know much about economics in the ancient cities apart from for Mesopotamia, which has left hordes of clay tablets describing financial transactions. The economy was dominated by the temples who received rents and tribute, provided religious services and loans. The cuneiform tablets recorded the debits and credits associated with these activities. The transactions were denominated in shekels, crude bars of silver. Coins, metal tokens, rarely, if ever, actually changed hands.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

Another theory behind the use of silver bullion is derived from the fact that Mesopotamian city-states were not self-sufficient and needed to trade with each other on a regular basis. Silver was a universal standard of value, since the same religious ideas predominated across the Tigris/Euphrates valley, and this is what allowed is what allowed inter-city trading to take place. The value of silver percolated down through the rest of the society in “private” economic transactions by osmosis from temple activities (debt collection, tithes, trade, etc.)

In either case, money is a creation of the state through writing and measurement; it is not a spontaneous development arising out of countless market transactions. Silver derived from its ability to be accepted as payment to centralized institutions, and not from any intrinsic value. Impersonal economic transactions, to the extent that they existed, used this standard of value long before the emergence of coins or markets. As G.F. Knapp put it, “Within a state the validity of the kinds of money is not a trade phenomenon but rests on authority.”

Michael Hudson summarizes the creation of money in ancient Mesopotamia:

The kind of general-purpose money our civilisation has come to use commercially was developed by the temples and palaces of Sumer (southern Mesopotamia) in the third millennium BC…Their large scale and specialisation of economic functions required an integrated system of weights, measures and price equivalencies to track the crops, wool and other raw materials distributed to their dependent labour force, and to schedule and calculate the flow of rents, debts and interest owed to them. The most important such debts were those owed for consigning handicrafts to merchants for long-distance trade, and land, workshops, ale houses and professional tools of trade to ‘entrepreneurs’ acting as subcontractors.

Accounting prices were assigned to the resources of these large institutions, expressed in silver weight-equivalency, as were public fees and obligations. Setting the value of a unit of silver as equal to the monthly barley ration and land-unit crop yield enabled it to become the standard measure of value and means of payment…Under normal conditions these official proportions were reflected in transactions with the rest of the economy.

…The use of silver in their transactions was economized by the system functioning largely on the basis of debts mounting up as unpaid balances due. For small retail sales…the common practice for consumers was not to pay on the spot but to ‘run up a tab,’ much as is done in bars today[114]…such balances typically were cleared at harvest time, the New Year, the seasonal return of commercial voyages or similar periodic occasions. The most important debts were owed to the chiefs in tribal communities or to the public institutions in redistributive economies…[102]… and their official ‘collectors.’ …it also was through the commercial role of these institutions in long-distance trade that the monetary metals were imported and put into circulation.

The major way most families obtained silver evidently was to sell surplus crops produced on their own land or land leased from these institutions on a sharecropping basis. The palace also may have distributed silver to fighters after military victories, or perhaps on the occasion of the New Year or royal coronation…[115]

Silver’s use in exchange derived from its role as a unit of account. This is what gave it a general character beyond that of just another commodity… these public institutions were the ultimate guarantors of the value of silver, by accepting it in payment of obligations owed to them…

The units of measurement–the shekel in Babylonia and the deben in Egypt, and their various partitions– were the standard by which value was measured in these ancient societies. Yet all the evidence indicates that these standardized units were established and used thousands of years before “free” markets and profits played any significant role in daily economic life. While individual transactions in silver are recorded, it appears that most “commercial” transactions were written contracts – credit/debit relations. There were no coins. Daily transactions were likely undertaken through the traditional methods of redistribution, reciprocity and householding, as well as credit. As Henry summarizes in the case of Egypt:

…goods were…valued in terms of the deben (and labour services in the pyramid cities determined by the deben value of consumption goods), but no debens ever changed hands…In other words, money does not originate as a medium of exchange but as a unit of account (and something of a store of value with regard to the king’s treasury), where the measure of value is arbitrarily specified by decree, and goods and services of various qualities and quantities can then be assigned a monetary value to allow a reasonable form of bookkeeping to keep track of tax obligations and payments and to maintain the separate accounts of the king. It should also be noted that the deben did not serve as means of payment (as with modern money), but did function as the means (or measure) through which payment was made.

He quotes Alfred Mitchell-Innes, who came to the same conclusion from his survey of economic history in his pathbreaking article for the Banking Law Journal:

The theory of an abstract standard is not so extraordinary as it at first appears…All our measures are the same. No one has ever seen an ounce or a foot or an hour .. . We divide, as it were, infinite distance or space into arbitrary parts, and devise more or less accurate implements for measuring such parts when applied to things having a corporeal existence …

Credit and debt are abstract ideas, and we could not, if we would, measure them by the standard of any tangible thing. We divide, as it were, infinite credit and debt into arbitrary parts called a dollar or a pound, and long habit makes us think of these measures as something fixed and accurate; whereas, as a matter of fact, they are peculiarly liable to fluctuations (Innes, 1914, p. 155).

Essentially, the privileging of the “medium of exchange” aspect of money is not rooted in historical fact, but is based on economists’ desire to set up “free markets” and “private enterprise” as primordial and all state activity as an unnecessary and parasitical appendage. They need this in order to make their philosophical assumptions valid. In other words, this ahistorical view stems from the libertarian bias of modern economic “science” and not from true historical reality.

It is important to note that in Egypt (and this would accord with Mesopotamia and other areas) money was developed in a non-market, non-exchange economy. While some economic historians and anthropologists of a neoclassical persuasion diligently speculate that the Egyptian economy must have paralleled that with which we are now familiar, there is no evidence for exchange in the Old Kingdom. The Egyptians had no vocabulary for buying, selling, or even money; there was no conception of trading at a profit. It is very clear that there was no market in grains. A market economy (of a sort) and the monetization of the economy, including the production of coins, had to wait until Greek domination…

When these concepts become imported into Greek culture by Middle-Eastern traders after the Bronze Age collapse, they will become transmogrified into something closer to the kind of money and markets we know of today. This is the next crucial step in the evolution of money. We’ll consider that history next time.


[2] Vladimir Pletser: Does the Ishango Bone Indicate Knowledge of the base 12? An Interpretation of a Prehistoric Discovery.

[3] Carroll Quigley: The Evolution of Civilizations, pp. 213-214

[4] Carmona and Ezzamel: Accounting and Forms of Accountability in Ancient Civilizations: Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. IE Working Paper WP05-21

[5] Urbanization and land ownership summary review

[6] William Goetzmann: Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible.

[7] Wray, et. al.: Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of Alfred Mitchell-Innes

4 thoughts on “The Origin of Money – 4

    • Thanks, man that means a lot. I’ve been going through a lot of personal issues lately. Haven’t had much time or inclination to write.

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