The Second Age of Man: The Invention of Money
I’ve blogged about money being invented for sex many times before but hey, it’s a good story, so I’m going to again.
So man became civilized and dominant by being able to work in groups of hundreds. This was unique to homo sapiens form of communication, as it allowed us to create shared beliefs in Sun, Moon, Earth and, over time, Gods, Saints and Priests.
Eventually, as shared beliefs joined us, they joined us together in having leaders. It is a key differential between humans and monkeys. For example, the anthropologist Desmond Morris was asked whether apes believe in God, and he emphatically responded no. Morris, an atheist, wrote a seminal book in the 1960s called The Naked Ape, where he states that humans, unlike apes, “believe in an after-life because part of the reward obtained from our creative works is the feeling that, through them, we will 'live on' after we are dead.”
This is part of our shared belief structure that enables us to work together, live together and bond together in our hundreds and thousands. Hence, religion became a key part of the mankind’s essence of order and structure, and our leaders were those closest to our beliefs: the priests in the temples. As man settled into communities and began to have organised structure however, it led to new issues. Historically, man had been nomadic, searching the lands for food and moving from place to place across the seasons to eat and forage. Where we were deficient in our stores of food, or where other communities had better things, we created a barter system to exchange value with each other.
You have pineapples, I have maize, let’s swap.
You have bright coloured beads, I have strong stone and flint, let’s trade.
The barter trade worked well, and allowed different communities to prosper and survive.
Eventually, we saw large cities form. Some claim the oldest surviving city in the world in Jericho, dating back over 10,000 years. Others would point to Eridu, a city that formed in ancient Mesopotamia – near Basra in Iraq – 7,500 years ago. Either way, both cities are seriously old.
As these cities formed, thousands of people gathered and settled because the city could support complex, civilised life.
Using Eridu as the focal point, the City was formed because it drew together three ancient civilisations: the Samarra culture from the North; the Sumerian culture who formed the oldest civilisation in the world; and the Semitic culture, who had historically been nomads with herds of sheep and goats; and it was the Sumerians who invented money.
Money: a new shared belief structure that was created by the religious leaders to maintain control.
In Ancient Sumer, the Sumerians invented money because the barter system broke down. It broke down because of humankind settling into larger groups and farming. The farming and settlement structures introduced a revolution in how humankind operated. Before, people foraged and hunted; now they settled, and farmed together.
Farming resulted in abundance and abundance resulted in the trading system breaking down. Barter doesn’t work when everyone has pineapples and maize. You cannot trade something which someone already has. So there was a need for a new system and the leaders of the time – the government if you prefer – invented it. They invented money. Money is the control mechanism of societies and economies. Countries that have money have respected economies; countries that don’t, don’t.
How can America and Britain have trillions of dollars of debt, but still be Triple-A rated? Because they have good money flows linked to their economies as global financial centres, binding our shared belief structures together.
As Professor Yuval Noah Harari puts it: “The truly unique trait of [Homo] Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities. Of course not all fictions are shared by all humans, but at least one has become universal in our world, and this is money. Dollar bills have absolutely no value except in our collective imagination, but everybody believes in the dollar bill.”
So how did the priests invent this shared belief and make it viable?
There were two Gods in Ancient Sumer: Baal, the god of war and the elements and Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. Ishtar made the land and crops fertile, as well as providing pleasure and love:
Praise Ishtar, the most awesome of the Goddesses,
Revere the queen of women, the greatest of the deities.
She is clothed with pleasure and love.
She is laden with vitality, charm, and voluptuousness.
In lips she is sweet; life is in her mouth.
At her appearance rejoicing becomes full.
This was the key to the Sumerian culture: creating money so that the men could enjoy pleasure with Ishtar. Men would come to the temple and offer their abundant crops to the priests. The priests would place the crops in store for harder times – an insurance against winter when food is short and against crop failure in seasons of blight and drought. In return for their abundance of goods, the priests would give the famers money. A shared belief in a new form of value: a coin.
What could you do with this coin?
Have sex of course. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about how this worked:
"Every woman of the land once in her life to sit in the temple of love and have... intercourse with some stranger... the men pass and make their choice. It matters not what be the sum of money; the woman will never refuse, for that were a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. After their intercourse she has made herself holy in the sight of the goddess and goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are tall and fair are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law: for some of them remain for three years or four."
So money was sacred and every woman had to accept that she would prostitute herself for money at least once in her life. This is why Ishtar was also known by other names such as Har and Hora, from which the words harlot and whore originate.
It is why prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and accountancy the second oldest, and is the reason why Jeremy Clarkson was right: “money and rumpy-pumpy are the twin engines that control everything we do”.
Money was created to support prostitution, which allowed governments (priests) to create a new shared belief structure that allowed society to over produce goods and crops, and still get on with each other after barter broke down.
Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at Yale, asked himself: what would happen if I could teach a bunch of monkeys to use money? His monkey of choice was the capuchin which, in the tradition of monkey labs everywhere, were given names and Felix was Chen’s favourite.
The monkeys lived together in a large, open cage with a testing chamber at the end. For currency, Chen settled on a 1-inch silver disc with a hole in the middle. The first step was to teach the monkeys that the coins had value. If you give a capuchin a coin, he will sniff it and, after determining he can’t eat it (or have sex with it), he’ll toss it aside. So Chen and his colleagues gave the monkey a coin and then showed a treat. Whenever the monkey gave the coin back to the researcher, it got the treat. It took many months, but the monkeys eventually learnt that the coins could buy the treats.
Chen now introduced price shocks to the monkeys’ economy. Let’s say Felix’s favourite food was Jell-O, and he was accustomed to getting three cubes of it for one coin. How would he respond if one coin suddenly bought just two cubes? To Chen’s surprise, Felix and the others responded rationally. When the price of a given food rose, the monkeys bought less of it, and when the price fell, they bought more. The most basic law of economics — that the demand curve slopes downward — held for monkeys as well as humans.
Other experiments confirmed the parallels between human beings and these monkeys. And then, as if Chen needed any further evidence, the strangest thing happened in the lab.
Felix scurried into the testing chamber, gathered up all the coins that had been placed there, flung them back into the communal cage and dashed after them — a bank heist followed by a jailbreak. There was chaos in the big cage, with 12 coins on the floor and seven monkeys going after them. When Chen and the other researchers went inside to get the coins, the monkeys wouldn’t give them up. After all, they had learnt that the coins had value. So the humans resorted to bribing the capuchins with treats. This taught the monkeys another valuable lesson: crime pays.
Out of the corner of his eye, Chen saw something remarkable. One monkey, rather than handing his coin over to the humans for a grape or a slice of apple, gave it to a female monkey. Chen had done earlier research in which monkeys were found to be altruistic. Had he just witnessed an unprompted act of monkey altruism?>
Then — bam! — the two capuchins were having sex. As soon as the sex was over, the female brought the coin over to Chen to purchase some grapes. What he had seen wasn’t altruism but the first instance of monkey prostitution in the recorded history of science.
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...