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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.