Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Bust of Tutankhamon in gold

History of gold – a bust of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamon

When did people first use gold?

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.

History of silver
History of money

What is gold useful for?

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.

What is bronze good for?
How about 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 for centuries, there was enough gold in the world to make as much money as people needed.

Where does gold come from?

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.

Nubians and Sudan
Carthaginians in Spain
Dacians in Eastern Europe

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.

Inca gold mask

Inca gold mask

Gold in the Americas

There was also plenty of gold in Central America. By 1500 BC, the Olmec were making earrings and beads out of gold. The Maya also used a lot of gold, and the Inca used it too. Often artists mixed gold with copper.

Fighting wars over gold

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.

The Second Punic War
Trajan conquers Dacia

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.

History of gold and the Silk Road

The Romans traded gold and silver to India, Iran, and China. They got back silk, cotton, medicines, steel, and spices. We call this the Golden Age of Rome, and it literally was. Then when the Dacian mines ran out of gold, about 275 AD, the Romans lost interest in Dacia and went home again.

West African gold in the Middle Ages

Great Zimbabwe

History of gold: Great Zimbabwe

By the Middle AgesWest African people started to trade their gold for salt from the Sahara desert to their north. First Fatimid and then Almohad caravans of hundreds of camels crossed the Sahara to West Africa to trade salt for gold. In East Africa, Islamic traders bought gold from Zimbabwe.

Medieval West Africa
Great Zimbabwe
Medieval African economy

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 Sahara desert anymore. By 1471, the Portuguese were calling West Africa the “Gold Coast”.

Medieval ships and sailing

Gold in California

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

History of gold: Chinese men working in the California gold fields in the 1800s

When European people invaded the Americas, 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. (There was mostly silver.) They forced Native people, and then enslaved African-Americans, to work in the mines.

History of Mexico
African-American slavery
California’s gold rush

When geologists 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. They took the land from the Native people there. Most of the Gold Rush miners did not get rich, but a few did. Because it was hard work to mine gold, white settlers brought Chinese men to California to dig for gold.

Gold in today’s economy

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
More about silver
More about jewelry

Bibliography and further reading about the history of gold:


More about gold
History of Science home