9 Most Unusual Currencies from Around the World

  • Sure, I’ll buy your pigs. Let me just get my enormous, eight-ton slab of stone out.

Wealth comes in many forms. It could be stocks, strings of data that don’t even exist in the real world, or piles of gold.

Over the length of human history, we’ve used many, many different things to trade and amass fortunes. Some of them are more conventional, while others are just downright bizarre.

Here is a collection of nine of the weirdest currencies from ancient and recent history, and some that are currently in use.

Yapese rai stone. Photo by Eric Guinther, Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

9) The Australian Dollar

“What’s so weird about Australian dollars? Aren’t they just modern bills?” you ask. We hear you, and that’s exactly the point.

Australia has one of the most advanced currencies on the planet. To begin, Australian dollar bills are made of plastic polymers instead of paper. They’re completely waterproof and incredibly hard to tear, which makes them practically indestructible.

They’re also ridiculously hard to counterfeit. Never mind that they’re plastic, they also feature complex designs and intricate 3D and color-changing effects that make them a counterfeiter’s nightmare.

Not only that, the bills feature Braille writing so the visually impaired can easily tell their value.

8) Salt

Ever heard someone a person isn’t worth their salt? Well, this is where that comes from.

Salt is historically an extremely valuable commodity. It was so precious that cultures from China to Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa have used it as legal tender.

Ancient Ethiopians used slabs of rock salt in place of coins. Meanwhile, Moorish traders traded salt and gold at an equal value.

There’s also a common myth that Roman legionnaires got paid in salt. That, however, isn’t actually true — they did get a salt allowance, but it wasn’t consider their salary.

Oh yeah, and that’s where the word “salary” supposedly comes from.

7) Tea

Salt isn’t the only consumable currency in history. While the Chinese traded in salt, they also used tea in place of money, as did the peoples of Tibet, Mongolia, and Siberia.

This wasn’t your regular loose leaf tea, though. Instead, they compressed shredded tea leaves into dense solid bricks that were easy to transport and weigh.

In Mongolia and Siberia, tea was actually preferred over cold hard cash. It’s easy to see why — if famine struck and there was no food to buy, you could just eat your currency.

The tea currency tradition survived in Siberia all the way until Word War II.

6) German Emergency Money

After World War I, Germany was in dire straits to put it slightly. The country’s economy had all but collapsed, and they still had to pay enormous war reparations.

In this environment, the German central bank — the Reichsbank — simply ran out of paper to print bills. So, local governments took it upon themselves to supply their communities with “notgeld,” or emergency money.

They printed bills on anything they happened have on hand. Wood, silk, aluminum foil, playing cards… It was all good.

Well, it really wasn’t. The atrocious economic situation kind of helped this one guy called Hitler drum up support for his party.

5) Cocoa Beans

They say money doesn’t grow on trees. That wasn’t the case in the ancient Central and South Americas though.

From Aztecs to Mayans, most Mesoamerican peoples before the Spanish conquest agreed that cocoa beans were legal tender. The cocoa bean became common currency at some point after the 8th century.

The cocoa beans could pay for anything from taxes and tributes to local lords to clothing and food. Cocoa was also used to make chocolate, which was an important status symbol and used in religious rituals.

And like with all currencies, some crooks tried to counterfeit it. There are stories of merchants getting harshly punished for using fake cocoa beans in transactions.

4) U.S. Death Penalty Dollars

Today, the Almighty Dollar is probably the world’s most commonly used currency. That wasn’t always the case, though.

In the original 13 colonies, bills were far from sophisticated. They were printed on regular paper, and with the prevalence of printing machines, pretty much anyone could theoretically do it.

So, what did the colonies do? They slapped a warning on what would happen to counterfeiters if they were caught.

And it wasn’t a mild warning either. Each colony printed “To counterfeit is death” on their bills.

3) Zaire’s Headless Bills

Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the central African country of Zaire with an iron fist from 1965 to 1997. After his totalitarian regime was ousted, Zaire ran into a problem.

The country didn’t have the resources to design and print new currency. They could’ve used the old money, but every bill bore the face of their not-so-beloved dictator, an unwelcome reminder of the past.

But Zaire came up with a creative solution. They punched out Mobutu’s face from the bills, effectively beheading the printed despot.

Say what you will, but having a hole where the previous ruler’s face was on your money makes a pretty strong statement.

2) Squirrel Pelts

Furs have been a valuable object of trade all throughout history. It’s no wonder then that they acted as the default currency of medieval Russia and Finland.

It might not have been the most animal-friendly currency ever, but at least it was relatively easy to acquire. Out of cash? Grab a bow and some arrows and go into the woods for a bit.

Hunting squirrels for money may have also had an unintended side effect during the Black Plague. The disease didn’t hit Russia and Finland anywhere near as hard as it did the rest of Europe.

Some historians speculate that killing squirrels may have reduced the number of plague-bearing flees. Or maybe it was just due to the countries being practically frozen for most of the year.

1) Rai Stones

Have you ever wished that you had bigger coins to show off just how rich you are? The natives of the island of Yap in Micronesia certainly did.

The Yapese used — and occasionally still use — discs hewn from limestone as a currency. At times, these “coins”, or rai stones, were ridiculously huge.

The largest known rai stone is 12 feet in diameter and nearly two feet thick. Even if you had an enormous wallet to pack that in, the thing weight 8,800 pounds.

You couldn’t exactly hand that kind of a thing to a merchant. So, the Yapese recorded every transaction into a story about the stones’ past owners.