From the Left



From Barter Trade in Ancient Mesopotamia to 21st Century 'Capitalism of Nothingness,' Part I

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

One day sometime between 2063 and 2060 B.C., in the extinct Sumerian town of Drehem, in the outskirts of the also extinct city of Nippur (in present day Iraq), a public scribe recorded the disbursement of 574 cow hides. In exchange for what? The cuneiform tablet does not say, but it could have been silver, textiles, pottery or any number of tangible valuables. Another clay tablet, dated the sixth year of Amar-Suen (2039 B.C.), reflects the payment of wages to 366 day laborers, perhaps temple construction workers, receiving an unspecified amount of goods. They could have been barley, items of clothing, dates (the fruit) or beer. Such was the ancient Mesopotamians' pre-coinage system of barter trade.

Fast-forward 4,080-odd years and read this week's economic headlines. The world's richest man, Elon Musk, protagonist of history's biggest buyers' remorse drama, tells Twitter top executives that "bankruptcy isn't out of the question"; Sam Bankman-Fried, the eccentric founder of the FTX cryptocurrency company sees a 32-billion-dollar valuation fizzle into nothing in a matter of 3 or 4 days. Wikipedia has already updated (downgraded) him from "billionaire" to "former billionaire."

So how did we get from bartering goats for barley and beer for labor to what is increasingly becoming an economy of nothingness, where PayPal generates 7 billion dollars' worth of revenue any given quarter by charging fees for digital money transactions; and so-called influencers (an unfortunate term) monetize (another unfortunate term) uploaded dance and dare videos to TikTok and other digital dumping grounds of nothingness.

Well, it's a long story punctuated by pivotal moments that include the emergence of currency, money lending, profit-seeking trade, joint stock companies, the futures market, the internet and more recently, cryptocurrency.


When cows (Bos taurus) and other forms of cattle were first domesticated around 10,500 years ago in the Middle East and later in the Indus Valley region (Bos indicus) they became a valuable and convenient form of proto-currency. The Latin word for money, "pecunia," is derived from "pecus," Latin for cattle. The English words "cattle" and "chattel" (movable property) share a common etymology with "capitalism": the Medieval Latin word "capitale" (property or stock). In present-day southern Sudan, Mundari and Dinka tribespeople still use cattle as a form of currency, as dowries and to pay fines in conflict resolution proceedings led by tribe elders. Because of the prevalence of cattle raiding, herders are armed with long automatic weapons, as if they were protecting a bank vault.


Other forms of ancient currency include salt, which was used in Greece to purchase slaves, thence the expression "not worth his weight in salt." In Rome, soldiers were often paid in salt. The Latin term "salarium argentum" means salt money, and "argentum" translates into "silver," which was used to mint dinars and other denominations of coinage.

Unlike salt, which is essential in the human diet, and cattle, which have intrinsic value as transport animals and sources of meat, milk, fat, leather, horn and much more, later forms of non-coin currency held symbolic (arbitrary) value. That was the case with gold and silver, for example, because of their scarcity. Around 1200 B.C., in China, the rest of Asia and the Indian subcontinent, cowries (no relation to cows; they're a type of shell) became the preferred form of currency. Pre-Columbian Aztecs and Mayas gave cocoa beans special value, contradicting many a parent's admonition that money doesn't grow on trees. When English explorer Thomas Cavendish landed in Mexico's Pacific coast in 1587, he raided a Spanish customs house that included 400 bags of cocoa beans, each bag valued at an estimated 10 silver crowns (or 1/4 of a pound).

Numismatists agree that the oldest coins date to 610-600 B.C., minted in Lydia, present-day Turkey. Made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, these earliest of coins were struck only on one side with images of roaring lions, emblematic of Lydian kings. The use of coins soon spread throughout the Greek world and into Persia.


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History" and the forthcoming book "When the World Turned Upside Down: Politics, Culture, and the Unimaginable Evenest of 2019-2022." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.



Marshall Ramsey Al Goodwyn Christopher Weyant Gary Markstein Bob Englehart Ed Gamble