Imagine this: You’re at the checkout trying to pay for snacks you’ve grabbed for your first (socially distanced) gathering in ages, and your card gets rejected. Panic ensues, but then you dig your hand into your pocket, and it jingles reassuringly — not with coins, but seashells! The bill is settled, and the day saved. In some villages of Papua New Guinea, this scenario could actually happen.
Currencies have evolved spectacularly over time. And around the world, the more creative ones were in use long before banknotes and coins took center stage. But what’s next? Today, as Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies appear set to take over the world, we check out alternative currencies that have paved the way, and some that could diversify the future of trading.
— Sohini Das Gupta, OZY Reporter
the future of currency is already here
1. Shell Stocked
As COVID-19 launched the world into chaos last year, one society found its new normal in old practices. For the Tolai people of Papua New Guinea, adaptation meant the resurgence of an Indigenous shell currency called tabu, or shell money. With little access to cold cash, villagers in the East New Britain province turned to their existing collections of the shells of nassa mud snails. While tabu can be used directly for daily bartering of essential items or exchanged against the official Papua New Guinean kina, its role in recent times has revolved around ceremonial exchanges at weddings, birthdays and funerals. But as circulation increased during the lockdown, the stringed currency that’s measured by arm lengths (1 1/2 lengths can fetch a packet of rice) meant a return to nature — and basic survival for many.
2. Coca, Not Coins
Coca — the leafy plant that’s the base ingredient for cocaine — grows aplenty in Amazonian Colombia, its abundance a contrast to the scarcities of the region. As drug traffickers, rebel groups and the government take turns locking horns or negotiating peace pacts, farmers in the hard-to-access Guayabero region often rely on coca paste ... as a currency. It can be exchanged at local stores by the gram for everything from vegetables to cleaning products.
3. Piggy Banking
Gold? Life savings? Family heirloom? If you belong to the Turaga community of Vanuatu’s Pentecost island, your bank deposit could take the form of a pile of curly pig tusks. Called tuvatu, the currency is a central part of the Indigenous community’s efforts to establish a sovereign identity within the Pacific Island nation. Special banks accept pig tusks, which are considered sacred in the region and have been used as ceremonial currency since ancient times. The idea is to protect the centuries-old customs of one of Vanuatu’s 83 islands from the throttle of modern capitalism.
4. Extra Cheesy
When at the Credito Emiliano bank in Italy, remember to say cheese! Locally known as Credem, this bank will give you a loan against a collateral of giant wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Conceived as a bid to help dairy farmers in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, the bank’s curious currency has been the subject of a Harvard Business School study. Credem treats the carefully aged cheese like the precious commodity that it is, storing it under the best conditions at a local warehouse. The idea is to secure your money’s worth, “cow to bank.” The excessive attention given to cheese seems less loony when you discover that in 2009, an 80-pound wheel was priced at $350, and a solid stash can amount to thousands of dollars.
5. Bitten by Bitcoin
Bitcoin’s no longer a novelty. But on Sept. 7, El Salvador is poised to become the first nation to accept the cryptocurrency as legal tender, alongside the U.S. dollar. Experts caution that the bold move carries multiple risks. Economist William Luther, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University and an authority on alternative currencies, worries about the intent of “forced acceptance” by the Salvadoran government. “If you own a coffee shop, and someone offers a payment in bitcoin, you have to accept,” he tells OZY. Even small proprietors will need smartphone and tech knowledge that they may not wish to obtain. The government’s decision to act as guarantor of bitcoin trade also “puts the small, developing country at risk,” Luther warns. It could “lose money quickly” if the price of bitcoin falls in the time period between the execution of a trade and the government’s conversion of bitcoins to dollars. The International Monetary Fund has also cautioned nations against accepting Bitcoin as legal tender.
riches of yore
1. Salt to Salary
In kitchens around the world, salt might be the most crucial ingredient. And for soldiers in ancient Rome, it was part of their wages. At a time when entire economies hinged around the salt trade, the Roman soldiers’ allowance in the valuable commodity was termed salarium argentum (sal = salt in Latin). From there emerged the French word salaire and soon every earning adult’s favorite English word, salary. Labor to salt conversion was serious business, and your pay could be docked for being deemed literally “not worth” your salt. The glistening crystal was traded ounce for ounce for gold among Moorish merchants in Sub-Saharan Africa as early as the sixth century. And salt blocks, called amole tchew, served as currency in medieval Ethiopia, often referred to by merchants as “white gold.”
2. Beavers, Bucks and More
Receiving an animal skin as a form of payment might sound like something out of a mobster movie, but it was perfectly acceptable throughout much of history. A beaver pelt in mid-18th century North America could buy you two precious pounds of sugar. One beaver pelt, valued at roughly $2 in 1837, would be the equivalent of $50 today. Squirrel pelts were a prime point of exchange in medieval Russia and Finland. A linguistic link to the lost currency is the Finnish word for money, raha, which originally translated to “fur of squirrel.” Another example might be the English slang for dollar — buck — which is a nod to the ubiquity of buck (deer) skin in early trade exchanges.
3. Edible Exchanges
If you took a cue from the Maya and the Aztecs and tried to pay me in chocolate, you’d probably succeed. Even cocoa beans, with their intense aroma, might seal the deal. In certain Mesoamerican civilizations, cocoa beans were a desired trading commodity, with some believing that they were endowed with mystical powers. Spanish colonial accounts indicate that some Europeans were using the beans to pay workers well into the 16th century. And chocolate, a far cry from your Toblerone bar in its original incarnation as a bitter drink, has historically been held in high commercial esteem. One of its earliest depictions in art is a mid-seventh century mural displayed in a pyramid that may have been a marketplace near present-day Guatemala. In it, a woman offers what appears to be a bowl of hot chocolate in return for dough — a deal I’d personally never strike.
1. Shifting Economies
But it isn’t just individuals looking to survive who’ve turned to the barter system, both in the past and now. Following the wave of economic sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump against Iran and Russia, those nations — and others interested in trading with them — decided to return to the primitive practice to avoid working with banks vulnerable to American retribution. Whether it’s Iranian oil for Indian rice, Indonesian palm oil for Russian fighter jets, or the export of medical equipment last year to Iran under a special European mechanism called INSTEX, barter is the buzzword.
Circumventing the dollar works for those trying to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive. It can work in the form of virtual currencies like China’s digital yuan, which is not a cryptocurrency — simply an electronic version of the country’s paper notes. And it can also work for hyperlocal interests. Take Ithaca HOURS, a time-based currency system embraced by the upstate New York college town. Created during the recession of 1991, the system was built to offer an additional incentive to local businesses and workers, boosting Ithaca’s economy. The HOUR is pegged against $10 to represent one hour’s work.
3. Cryptocommunsim — What?
Traditionally, cryptocurrencies have been viewed as the realm of libertarians. But a growing number of enthusiasts on the left are upending that notion. These cryptosocialists view digital money as a valuable ally in everything from achieving equitable housing distribution to defeating autocrats. The socialist government of Venezuela has tried experimenting with its own cryptocurrency to bypass U.S. sanctions. Yet this trend might not be about ideology at all, suggests Luther, the Florida Atlantic University economist. It is “Just people doing what works for them,” he says, adding that, “For many, Bitcoin works, irrespective of ideological differences.”
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Cold hard cash can be a work of art. In the international pageant of beautiful bucks, the Icelandic króna is hard to beat. On one side, the coin displays the four guardian spirits of Iceland: a bird, a bull, a mountain giant and a dragon. Flip it, and you find marine wildlife — some coins have a dolphin or shore crab while others feature cod or lumpfish. Bills, on the other hand, are decorated with historic Icelandic characters, artists and artwork, etched with intricate patterns.
2. A Splash of Costa Rica
Arrange a bunch of the country’s currency, the colón, side by side, and you’ll be greeted by a brilliant paper quilt. In stunning shades of green, yellow and blue, the six different bills are an ode to Costa Rican icons who have shaped the country’s history. Painted sharks, sloths and hummingbirds inhabit the reverse sides of the bills, showing off the Central American country’s coasts and rainforests.
3. Paper Safari
Fancy going on a “safari” to South Africa? Just shuffle some rands in your hands. With its distinctive color, design and tribute to the country’s legendary fauna, the South African currency has to be one of the wildest on the market. And worry not: You don’t need safeguarding from a brush with the “big five” displayed on the bills. Instead, take your time gazing at the buffalos, elephants, rhinos, leopards and lions.