Culture and Technology - Early Currency

Oliver Steinglass

Cultural evolution is defined as a change in the body of non-genetic information that humans have. Cultural evolution is similar to genetic evolution in the sense that successful genes (or cultural factors) continue existing, while less successful genes (or cultural factors) are eventually killed off by natural selection (Ehrlich). An example of the influence of cultural evolution on early human technology is through early currency. Technology is defined as something that makes human life easier. It is a means of achieving a goal. Early humans used a barter system for trade, by trading livestock or other goods they specialized in. However, this system wasn’t always successful as different people had different values for different types of goods. Furthermore, it was difficult to trade large goods such as livestock over long distances. In order to aid this process of trade, humans began using smaller items for trade; people being able to trade their cows for a sea shell and in turn trade that sea shell for a bag of wheat was a much easier system than trading the cows directly for the wheat. However this system had issues of its own. If the item being used for trade was as common as a seashell, anyone could become rich simply by finding many seashells. In order to solve this issue humans began using more rare items, such as gold or other metals (Millman).

As trade became easier between groups of people and eventually cities and civilizations countries were able to specialize in a certain good and then trade with another country in order to get different goods. Trade was a means of stimulating technological innovation. Cultural evolution is a change in non-genetic information humans have. By trading with others, humans were able to share information and practices with each other. A great example of this cultural evolution brought about by trade is Europe. European states were too weak and in control of too few resources to form monopolies and to specialize, so they were forced to trade with each other and allow economic competition. This competition helped Europe develop technologically and become very advanced, helping them achieve a dominant global position. With the introduction of trade came the introduction of writing as humans needed to keep track of their transactions. Writing as a form of keeping track of goods is explored in my previous essay (provide link). Writing coincided with class distinction which is a reason why the global maps of illiteracy and poverty are very similar. (Ehrlich)

The first officially government issued currency appeared in Lydia (now Turkey) during the reign of King Alyattes (619-560 BC). For a coin to be considered legitimate (according to historians) it must be clearly issued by a government, portable, non-perishable, hard to counterfeit, and be intrinsically valuable (Millman). As discussed in the introduction humans were already using gold and silver for trading long before the existence of coins. However, for each transaction the gold or silver had to be weighed in order for the vender to determine its value. This time consuming process was eliminated with the introduction of a coin of standardized weight.

Lydian culture heavily influenced their invention of standardized currency. Lydia was geographically placed near the Bosphorous and Hellespont, essentially linking Greece to Asia. Lydians valued their merchants very highly, calling them agoraios, meaning People of the Market. Merchants were given a special status in Lydian society. According to 19th century historian Ernst R. Curtis, “the Lydians became on land what the Phoenicians were by sea, the mediators between Greece and Asia” (Millman). This made Lydia a hub for trading between Greece and Asia. This naturally environmental factor allowed for the culture of Lydia to value merchants and trade so highly. This is an example of cultural evolution, by placing such a high value on merchants and trade it was natural for Lydia to search for means of developing their trade. In order to do so, Lydia created the Lydian Stater.

The Lydian Stater is the earliest example of a standardized currency. It was made out of electrum, a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy. What set the stater apart was that the each coin was a uniform weight and had a state seal stamped into it. The Lydian Stater was the first coin to feature a state stamp or emblem. The success of the stater led to neighboring civilizations following suit and creating their own standardized, state-issued currency. This is again an example of cultural evolution. When other countries noticed how successful it was to have a standard currency they took that knowledge and created their own currencies. This technology was later developed even further with the introduction of paper currency. When one civilization makes a breakthrough, that breakthrough also affects the rest of the world. It is a breakthrough that can be learned from and built on by other people and civilizations. The Lydian stater was simply a building block from the barter system to the complicated economic world we live in today.

Works Cited:

NPR interview with author Paul Ehrlich on his book “Human Natures, Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect” from NPR archives from October 27, 2000

Ehrlich, Paul R., “Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy” in “Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect” Island Press, 2000, pp. 253-279.

Millman, Everett. “The Importance of the Lydian Stater as the World’s First Coin.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited, 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.

Beattie, Andrew. “The History Of Money: From Barter To Banknotes.”Investopedia. N.p., 01 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.