You’ve likely encountered cryptocurrency skeptics who question how an item that only exists digitally can be currency. Perhaps you’ve even attempted to explain that Bitcoin is a virtual token logged as an entry on a ledger called the blockchain. Certainly, this is more abstract than the paper money we carry in our wallets. Yet, all items of worth are valuable only because someone at some point said they were, and then others agreed.
What you may want to point out to cryptocurrency critics is that we exchange paper–paper!–in dollar bill form because the government says it holds worth. Dollars used to be backed by gold, but then President Richard Nixon decoupled the two, so now we’re seriously just trading paper. Gold, for that matter, is also an object we once randomly assigned worth. The Native Americans were well aware of gold deposits yet didn’t excavate them because they didn’t assign it value. The wampum shell beads they used as currency were worth more to them.
We’ve just covered four types of North American currency: beads, gold, paper, and virtual tokens. Yet, there’s a whole wide world where all sorts of items were used as currency through the ages. Here are just as few of the most unusual ones.
Starting in 500 A.D., roughly twelve-foot, eight-ton limestone discs called rai stones-basically double the height and 90 times the weight of a relatively tall man–were used as money on the island of Yap in the Solomon Islands. You couldn’t exactly hand these off, so the money stayed put, and a public ceremony notified the community when ownership of that rai stone changed.
Salt blocks were the main currency in the Sahara Desert during the Middle Ages. Just like paper money today, counterfeiting was possible then too, so salt block recipients licked the block to make sure it was the real salty deal.
Tea bricks were considered more valuable than coins for a time in Siberia and Tibet, though they were also used in China, Mongolia and Central Asia during the 19th century. The reason why? Tea could treat a cough. Coins couldn’t.
When a shipment of cash didn’t reach New France (or Canada, as we know it now) in 1685, playing cards became currency. Jacques de Meulles, the intendant and interim governor of New France, affixed his seal on the cards, and that made the new money official.
So next time someone balks at the idea of Bitcoin, point them to this little history lesson for some perspective.
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