Over the course of these articles for Glint, I’ll be tracing the history of man’s relationship with gold – from pre-history through to the present day. We start back in the Stone Age, thousands of years before the dawn of civilisation.
As prehistoric man hunted and gathered, he came across the 6 native metals – silver, tin, lead, iron, copper and gold, which occur in nature in a relatively pure state. Gold was almost certainly the first metal he used.
Nuggets of gold could be found mixed with sediment in river beds, relatively easy to collect and shape. Man adorned himself with it – as well as with bones, teeth, shells and precious stones – while he was still using tools made out of stone, bone and wood, long before he started using copper, tin, or lead. The oldest actual records we have of man using metal are fragments of gold in Spanish caves inhabited by Paleolithic Man, dating back perhaps as much as 40,000 years. The first records of man using copper came tens of thousands of years later. Lead, tin and iron’s first use came even later.
The beauty of gold – dense, glimmering, shining – and its imperviousness no doubt captivated Stone Age Man the same way it does his 21st century descendants. A symbol of power and status, and of reproductive fitness. Like other forms of decoration – shells, bones and stones, even hand axes – gold was also used as reward – for heroic deeds, perhaps, as a prize for completing a task, as an expression of gratitude, as a tool in barter and exchange. In other words, it functioned as early money.
Even in prehistory gold was performing the role it has always served – and always will: to store value.
Stone Age man had the same instincts as we do today – the same urges, desires and compulsions. Survival is the most basic compulsion. You have to find water, food and shelter, for yourself and for those close to you.
Then there is the survival of your species: you have to reproduce. If you survive, thrive and reproduce, then the species as a whole grow stronger. Our self-interest is good for the species as a whole.
And so we have the same basic instincts: fear, desire, love, hate. What often goes unmentioned is our instinct for beauty.
We are instinctively repulsed or alarmed by things that are dangerous – snakes, spiders, a cliff edge, loud noises. Things that aid our survival we find beautiful – the sound of running water, a fit and healthy potential mate, an open landscape with water, varied animal, bird and plant life, good visibility and shelter. What we find beautiful is often good for us in some way. It is why man has always sought beauty.
With its unique characteristics, beautiful yet impervious, gold found special status even before the dawn of civilisation. Our prehistoric ancestors cherished it even before they were able to speak.
Our instinct for gold, the emotion it inspires, is as eternal as the metal. It is a primal instinct.
Next week – Gold in ancient mythology
* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.