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Bust of Tutankhamon in gold

Gold bust of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamon

People have been using gold to make jewelry since the Stone Age. You can find it just lying in little lumps in streams here and there. And gold is always pretty and yellow, even when it is just lying in the stream. But to get more gold you have to find gold mines underground. Because gold is both rare and pretty, it’s valuable, and people have always been willing to work hard to get more gold.

Gold is easy to work, but it is not strong enough to make tools or weapons out of. For that you need bronze or iron. But gold is super useful as money, and people used it to made trading easier even long before they started to make coins. Gold is rare enough to be valuable in small amounts that are easy to carry in your pockets. It’s tough enough that you can carry it around all day without breaking or ruining it. And there’s enough gold in the world to make as much money as people need.

But gold isn’t evenly distributed all over the world. People who have plenty of gold soon learned that they could sell gold to people who didn’t. Sudan, for example, has a lot of gold. In the Bronze Age, the Nubians in Sudan sold gold to the Egyptians who lived north of them.

Spain also had a lot of gold mines, and they, too, sold their gold. The Spanish sold gold to Phoenician traders starting about 700 BC. Spanish traders got glass beads and iron tools in exchange for their gold. The Dacians, in what’s now Romania, sold their gold to the Greeks for fancy pottery and to the Scythians for amber.

But when people have strong armies, sometimes they decide it would be cheaper to conquer you and take the gold, instead of buying it. In the 200s BC, the Carthaginians conquered Spain mainly in order to get their silver and gold. And then in 215 BC the Romans fought the Second Punic War to get control of those same mines. The gold and silver from Spain paid for the Romans to build the rest of their empire.

Gold coin of the Roman emperor Trajan (d. 117 AD)

Gold coin of the Roman emperor Trajan (d. 117 AD)

A few hundred years later, the gold in Spain began to run out. So about 100 AD the Roman Emperor Trajan conquered Dacia – again, mainly in order to get their gold. The Romans used the Dacian gold to pay their army. You can see a picture of a Roman soldier killing a man on the back of Trajan’s coin in the picture. That coin was made with Dacian gold. And the Romans traded gold and silver to India, Iran, and China. They got back silk, cotton, medicines, steel, and spices. Then when the Dacian mines ran out of gold, about 275 AD, the Romans lost interest in Dacia and went home again.

By the Middle AgesWest African people started to trade their gold for salt from the Almohad caravans of hundreds of camels crossed the Sahara to West Africa to trade salt for gold. After 1433 AD, when Portuguese sailors figured out how to sail to West Africa and back, they were able to trade for gold with the West Africans without having to cross the Chinese men working in the California gold fields in the 1800s

Chinese men working in the California gold fields in the 1800s

When European people came to North America, soon after this, they hoped they would find a lot of gold there, as they had in Africa. They did find some, though not as much as they had hoped. When men found gold in California in 1848 AD, thousands of men and women rushed to California to pan for gold and try to make their fortunes. Most of them did not get rich, but a few did.

Today, a lot of the world’s new gold still comes from South Africa. But China, the United States, and other countries also mine for gold. And people recycle the gold they already have: they melt it down to make new things. But because today we use paper money, not gold coins, gold really isn’t that valuable anymore. We use it as part of computers, to fill cavities in teeth, and to make reflective covers for spacecraft.

Learn by doing: visit a jewelry store and look at some real gold
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