Gold Was Money From The Beginning

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Published : November 10th, 2019
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Category : Editorials

In the beginning … man mined gold and made it into standardized ingots for what appears to be essentially a monetary use.

An interesting exchange on Twitter emerged around the very first known gold artifacts, from Nahal Kana in Israel, dating from about 4,200 BC. (We will *ahem* ignore for now evidence of underground gold mining in the Zambezi valley from as early as 100,000 BC.) Here is what they look like:

When I saw this, I thought immediately: “those are monetary objects.” They are similar to rings of course, but look how blocky and “ingot-like” they are. At 5cm (2 inches), they are too big for finger rings and too small for bracelets. Look how roughly they are worked, with visible hammer marks. For comparison, here is some gold jewelry from the same Chalcolithic Era:

People who had the ability to mine gold certainly had the ability to hammer and work it into more appealing shapes, especially given how difficult it is to mine and smelt gold in the first place. These rough, ingot-y rings are clearly not adornment, so what are they? A primitive sort of money, apparently, which probably traded by weight so working it into high-quality jewelry was a waste of labor.

As another comparison, here is some Celtic (Britain and France) “ring money” from about 1000 BC. This is generally labeled a form of money by anthropologists.

“Ring money” from Ireland, ca. 1000 BC. Not jewelry.
Also categorized as “ring money,” gold, ca. 1000 BC.

Type of gold “ring money,” Ireland, ancient period.

Here is some ancient jewelry to compare:

Grave with gold jewelry, Varna, Bulgaria, perhaps 4200 BC. Again we see that people were capable of fine design from the earliest period.

Mesopotamian gold hairpieces, ca. 2000 BC.

I think it is safe to conclude that, literally from the earliest times (about 4000 BC), gold was used in a monetary fashion, in the form of something like ingots — round “ingots” probably inspired by jewelry rings and bracelets.

Here is an extensive discussion of monetary gold and copper in the Ancient World from the earliest times (ca. 4000 BC), including the use of “ring money.”

Primitive Money: In Its Ethnological, Historical and Economic Aspects, by Paul Einzig

Here is the most relevant part, regarding these rings from Nahal Kana:

While gold has often been jewelry, there does not seem to have ever been a time when it was not money.

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Nathan Lewis was formerly the chief international economist of a firm that provided investment research for institutions. He now works for an asset management company based in New York. Lewis has written for the Financial Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, Japan Times, Pravda, and other publications. He has appeared on financial television in the United States, Japan, and the Middle East.
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