Forgot your password?

Historic Money in Myriad Forms: Cattle, Beast-Skins & Whale's Teeth

By Edited May 15, 2016 0 0

An ideal form of money is said to serve well as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and as both of measure of and a store of value. Yet history has proven that virtually anything capable of being used as a medium of exchange can be used as commodity money, regardless of how well it serves these other ideal monetary functions. 

Quartz crystal
In addition to the renowned precious metals, both base metals and valuable stones, quartz crystals, and gems have also been used as forms of money, as well as amber, jade, ivory, and even beast-skins, eggs, and feathers. Objects such as drums and gongs have served as money in some cases, as have furrowing tools, knives, thimbles, kettles, axes, and even boats (e.g., the kayak-like boats known as umiaks).

In other cases, iron-workers or other metalsmiths have also crafted unique objects out or iron or other base metals, which were not prized for their precious metal content, but expressly created for use as money. Some of the most notable forms of commodities and strange objects used as money in ancient times are still recognized currencies today, mainly in remote places of the world.

Cattle & Other Monetary Quadrupeds 

Live cattle, oxen, pigs, goats, sheep, horses, and camels have all been actively used as money at various times, particularly by nomadic tribes. Cattle and other hoofed quadrupeds may, in fact, be the most ancient known form of money, since taming beasts preceded the agricultural societies that went on to use grains for both money and ancient banking.

The Germanic rune Fehu/Feoh signified money, transferable wealth, and gold, as well as cattle, and the shape of the staves features the out-thrust horns of such a beast. The name of this rune is also the ultimate Germanic origin of the English word "fee."

The use of cattle as money was known to both the ancient Greeks and Romans: Certain of the Greeks in Homer's time used oxen as money, while the word "pecuniary" (meaning, "of, relating to, or consisting of money") comes from the Latin pecunia via the earlier pecu, meaning both cattle and money. 

Aes Signatum
One of the early forms of Roman money in use prior to Roman adoption of coinage was bronze bar known as the Aes Signatum, which sometimes bore images of the cattle that the earlier Romans had used for money. The use of cattle as a measure of value apparently survived even after the introduction of coinage, as a certain roman coin, known as the "as" reportedly once represented value equivalent to 1/100 of a cow.  

Arms of Mecklenburg region, Germany
The very English word cattle, in fact, was not originally a term for the bovine creatures at all— rather, it was derived from the Anglo-Norman French catel, from the medieval Latin capitale, meaning "capital," as in a principal sum of money. The words "cattle and "chattel" are closely related, both originally referring to moveable personal property (particularly livestock), just as the Feoh rune designates.

The use of cattle as a form of money did not endure into the latter eras of Germanic, Greek and Roman monetary history, but such was not the case for many nomadic societies, in which much of daily life continued to involve close association with the mettlesome four-legged beasts.

Horses were still used as a primary form of money by the Kirghiz people of central Asia as late as c. 1910, along with sheep which were used as a supplementary form. According to E.E. Evans-Pritchard during his studies of the Nuer people of Africa, the cultural importance of cows was such that the boys took the name of bulls, and marriage contracts were sealed through the transfer of cows to the wife's family.  In more dire circumstances, payments to redress killings were paid via the transfer of cows to the victim's family.

Popular as cattle may have been as a form of ancient money, they are likely to have left something to be desired as a convenient medium of exchange. One might also suppose that cattle were problematic in fulfilling money's ideal role as a long-term store of value. On the other hand, the quantity of monetary cattle apparently took precedence over the quality in at least some instances, such as the case of certain African Wakamba tribesmen. As related by American adventurer Negley Farson in 1940:"An agricultural expert had been trying to persuade the tribal chiefs not to keep their old and diseased cattle. In reply one of the Wakamba answered: ‘Listen, here are two pound notes. One is old and wrinkled and ready to tear; this one is new. But they are both worth a pound. Well, it’s the same with cows.’"

Beast-skins & Whale's Teeth

Beast-skins and furs have often been used as money, particularly in colder northern climes. Deerskins known as "bucks" by early American frontiersmen were used as money, and the term has survived into modern times as a slang term for U.S. dollars. Squirrel pelts were used as money in medieval times, and Russians reportedly used claws for pocket change. Finland was also a major trader of beast-skins, and the Finnish word raha for "pelt" came to be a term for money. By some accounts, squirrel pelts were at one point recognized by the Finnish government as a form of currency worth three cents each, and the word oravannahka ("squirrel-skins") is reportedly still a Finnish colloquialism for cash.

The bones and teeth of various animals have also been used as money. One of the most notable examples is the use of whale teeth as money by the Fijian Islanders. When the Fijians were encountered by Captain Cook in 1774, he discovered that they considered the teeth of sperm whales to not only be sacred artifacts, but also prized items for exchange in monetary transactions. The teeth were not only valued symbols of wealth and status, but also fulfilled one of money's ideal roles as a lasting store of value. Whale teeth were used as bride-money, for buying land (among other major purchases), and also had a traditional use for sealing contracts between tribal chiefs. According to one account, a 19th century Fijian chief presented whale teeth to another chief in order to engage him in a contractual agreement to kill an Australian missionary. More congenially, the teeth have also been used as parts of reception rituals for visiting royalty, such as Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.

According to another anecdote from the islands (related by Glyn Davies in A History Of Money From Ancient Times To The Present), a chest of gold coins was captured from a trading brig in the 1800s, and the coins were used as skipping stones by the young islanders. One of these youths later became a government official, and requested to be paid in whales' teeth rather than in sterling silver and gold sovereigns.

Whale's Tooth

Incidentally, in addition to their use as money, sperm whale teeth are also a hot black market commodity among scrimshaw dealers. Whaling is still legal in selected locations, but the importation of the teeth is sharply regulated in U.S. states that observe endangered species legislation. This creates high premiums for whale teeth sold on black markets. In states such as California, Hawaii and Long Island, specimens have reportedly sold for up to $300,000. Examples of individuals caught dealing in black market whale teeth include the director of a Maui whaling museum, who was arrested for buying black market whale teeth, and a Ukrainian scrimshaw craftsman living in Nantucket, who had allegedly been commissioned to carve the U.S. presidential seal into whale teeth for both Bush family presidents. 



Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.


  1. JJ Harrison "Quartz crystal." Wikipedia. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  2. RUMO "Pinzgauer." Wikimedia Commons. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  3. Ipankonin "Arms of Mecklenburg region, Germany." Wikipedia. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  4. Siren-Com "Aes Signatum." Wikipedia. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  5. LJU2ORD "Slovenian Cattle." Wikipedia. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  6. Hannes Grobe/AWI "Whale's Tooth." Wikipedia. 26/02/2015 <Web >
  7. Jon-Eric Melsæter "Fiji." Wikipedia. 26/02/2015 <Web >

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB History