by Anne Pyburn Craig
Some of the first forms of exchange ever used by humans included weaponry, animal hides, salt, shells and tools. From 9000-6000 BCE, livestock and grain were commonly used as a medium of exchange.
International trade predates minted currency by several centuries. The earliest known shipping happened in Egypt starting about 3000 BCE, when cargo started moving up and down the Nile and other mighty rivers. The practice spread out into the Mediterranean Sea as Egyptians began swapping with Minoan Crete. For reasons of portability and perishability, items like fine fabric and spices were popular early trade goods. The Phoenicians were early standouts, noted for fine linens, metalwork, and glass.
Around 1100 BCE, the Chinese decided that using tiny bronze weapons as symbols of value would be easier, eventually rounding the sharp edges for even easier trading. It would be another 500 years before the first proper coins were minted in what is now western Turkey. Around the same time as the far East’s first foray into currency, caravans of camels began crisscrossing North Africa and the Middle East, laden with trade goods, treading a path that would eventually become the fabled Silk Road. By 806 BCE, the Chinese had graduated to paper money, which took another 2400 years to hit Europe.
In the 1st century CE, the Roman Empire’s dominance of Europe opened up markets to the west, and maritime trade began between India and China. From the 5th century on, West African kingdoms joined the game, transporting gold, salt, and, sadly, also people across the Sahara.
The concept of debt was born right alongside the concept of money, or perhaps even earlier. Accounting of debts has been discovered on Mesopotamian tablets, written in cuneiform. In 12th century Britain, debt was recorded with tally sticks, twigs that were notched to record the amount in question and then broken in half so that each party could keep a record. The lender’s half was called the “stock”.
By the 13th century, the reign of Genghis Kahn spread through most of Asia, while in Europe trading alliances arose and merged to form the Hanseatic League, moving goods from the Baltic region into England and France. Banking was born during this era.
Although the 15th century was a rough time in Europe (with bad harvests, the Black Death, and the Hundred Years War), it was a lively time for trade. Portuguese merchants began importing humans from sub-Saharan Africa to Spain and the plantations of Cape Verde. A Chinese Muslim named Zheng He roved the seas with a fleet of huge junks, peddling porcelain, silks, precious metals, and medicines—returning with herbs, spices, exotic woods, ivory, jewels, cotton, and (memorably) a giraffe.
In Europe, canals were being constructed to facilitate the transport of trade goods. Much to the eventual chagrin of folks on the other side of the planet who had had the sense to stick with cowrie shells, wampum beads, and a gifting and sharing economy, understanding of global wind patterns—trade winds—was enticing merchant sailors into ever-higher expectations. Everyone wanted a shorter route to the Far East.
More folks began landing up in the general region of the Americas. Finding that trade there was not subject to the same cultural norms, many opted for straight-up plunder—helped along by the papal Doctrine of Discovery, which stated that when a Christian person found a place where non-Christians were living, they could simply declare ownership of it and all it contained.
In the early 19th century, economic writers began advocating tariffs and regulated reciprocity. The Industrial Revolution was dawning—trade would never be the same. As the 20th century rumbled along, fossil fuels, drugs, and weaponry were added to the list of hot commodities.
For an in-depth analysis of the history of global economics, which would be impossible in an article of this length, readers may wish to explore Debt: The First 5,000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber, who takes something of a Howard Zinn approach. The book is available online. For free.