One often hears stories about civilised and pre-civilised societies using shells, bones, and other trinkets as currency. How exactly did this system work? Taking the example of shells, did they have to be the same type of shell, have the same weight or was the system completely arbitrary?

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    I give you answer. You give me one shell three bone.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 22:34
  • Money is about trust. Today, it's "God" we trust, but really the treasury. Shells and bones are also based on trust. If everyone said that a bone was worth 3 shells, then everyone could use that as currency. However, it is different from bartering; I'll give you a horse for 12 packs of grain. That was not trust, but how much of the other you really needed or wanted.
    – Russell
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 23:18
  • @Russell, doesn't that depend on it you're intending to consume the bartered goods yourself? If grain is bought as a bearer of value, for example Shakespeare's grain speculation, then Shakespeare is treating the grain as a store of value (social trust), not as a useful object. The man who gets the horse rides it, the grain Shakespeare buys he sells on. The only use Shakespeare gains from the grain is its convertability into other stores of value. (Marx Capital I ch1-3.) Commented Apr 2, 2013 at 22:19
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    @SamuelRussell - no. There's always someone who will need grain and thus buy it. Grain has bartering value in itself. Nobody "needs" shells or bones (or paper money).
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 3:23
  • Yes, and specie is used in electronic goods and consumed as jewellery through loss. The embodiment of value and the use-value exist as different functions not as fundamental qualities—they exist in a social relationship. German inflation money made excellent toilet paper when it didn't embody value—it had a bartering value in itself. Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 5:14

3 Answers 3


These are the basic characteristics of a currency:

  • easy to carry: if you have something to exchange, you should be able to relocate and carry it where ever you wish. If you can do that, it is practical to make it currency. This characteristics formed shells and other smaller stones, shiny things like silver and gold and precious stones to currency.
  • rare: rare things are good to make it currency, so if you posess a certain amount of it, ensures you are richer than those who owns less. This characteristics made precious stones, silver and gold to be currency.
  • hard to copy: connected to rare characteristics. You can't make gold. So you can't make yourself rich only by producing the currency. If a currency is infinitely reproducable, the value is zero. That's why all the gold, silver and even paper money is valuable, you can spot the false ones.
  • accepted: mutual acceptation is needed. If an item is accepted by a lot of people, it serves as a currency, no matter what is it. For example in England there were wooden sticks as currency, signed by king. The wood itself worthless, but a higher authority forced to be accepted widely, so it is currency. A little less autocratic currency was salt in the ancient times. It wasn't easy to get, and it had value as food. Even if it wasn't the most practical currency it made it's way to be accepted widely, and the people started to measure value in a volume of salt.
  • comparable: this is easy the be fulfilled. If a currency is comparable to other amounts of currencies. This allowes exchange rates, and refines the values. You can make prices for a cow, an entire village or even just for an arrow. Therefore alone the gold wasn't currency, it needed to be divided to tiny pieces, so it was said I give 20 ounces of silver to an ounce of gold, so you don't have to divide your gold to microscopic pieces to buy just an arrow head.
  • Hard, durable: as Tom Au wrote.

Did I miss something? Feel free to expand the list!
Overall why were for example shells good for currency?
It was pretty durable, rare, hard to copy, easy to carry. And if you want to compare, you could say I give 5 shells for a big and nice one, so on some primitive barter level, it was comparable.

Further information on early economics here is a link to Aristotle' work "Politics", you might find good information in the linked first book, IX. chapter

  • Thank you. But this appears to largely be well-informed conjecture (primarily on why shells could work as currency). Do we know, for example, how Native American tribes used shells as currency? How rare were the shells used? Who decided such matters or was it completely arbitrary? I'm interested in how the economy worked using shells as currency. Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 13:31
  • @coleopterist I am updating the answer, adding Aristotle's book reference to his work of "politics", that might contain the information you are looking for. It is about bartering and early forms of economies. Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 14:27
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    Amusingly, there is even at least one currency that spectacularly fails the first characterstic: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rai_stones Commented May 2, 2014 at 8:52

Shells, bones, etc. worked as currency because they were "hard," and durable, and because (small groups of) people could come to an agreement on their value. The same was true of more "advanced" currency based on coins of metals such as copper, silver, or gold. Thus, they functioned as a store of (monetary) value.

  • My question is more on how they agreed on value and if these "coins" were standardised in any manner. Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 7:03
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    I imagine that varied by the region.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 19:45
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    @Luke I'll be happy to see some examples. Commented Nov 3, 2012 at 8:31

It is probably worth supplementing @TomAu's answer with Marx on Value, first three chapters of Volume 1. Somewhat idealist, but it contrasts different uses of money well. Clearly points out that specie is "fiat". Dave Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. A more anthropological account, but again, points out the social construction of currency.

A big part of this depends on whether you consider "rarity" (labor input production cost) to be a determinate factor in the viability of currency. The search and selection "costs" to an early agricultural or high intensity protein gathering economy of picking out "shells such as this," is a considerable embodiment of social time spent. But at what point is this fully currency, and at what point destructive display of wealth? Time for Graeber's anthropology probably.

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