In many historical accounts we read that the concept and use of money was a late development – that the ancients didn't have any form of money and used bartering and trade as their means of exchange. However, the historical accounts of Sumer would seem to contradict this assumption.
In Sumer the concept of money to be used for purchases or payment seems to have been well developed and is described in their histories, laws and epics. From what I can learn, the Sumerian “coins” consisted of a ring or disk of silver of a standard weight. The lowest denomination was a “shekel”, then a “mina” and finally a “talent.” One mina equaled 60 shekels. One Talent was equal to 60 mina. These coins were used to pay for property, buy goods and services, pay fines, pay taxes, etc.
This coinage was arranged according to the sexagesimal numbering system which had been developed earlier by the Sumerians (ie 1, 60 [1x60], and 3600 [60x60]) where one talent is equivalent to 3600 shekels or 60 minas, and 60 shekels is equivalent to one mina. The mina weighted about 500 gms., and the talent about 30 kgs.
Some examples of the use of the shekel from one of the later law codes inscribed on the cuneiform tablets:
“The price of one gur of barley is one shekel of silver’.
“The price of 3 qas of pure oil is one shekel of silver”.
“The price one sut and 5 qas of sesame oil is one shekel of silver”.
“The price of 6 suts of wool is one shekel of silver”.
“The price of 2 gurs of salt is one shekel of silver”.
“The price of one hal seed is one shekel of silver”.
“The wage of a labourer is one shekel of silver and his food one ban of barley and he has to serve for this wage for one month”.
Kramer notes: “The more industrious of the artisans and craftsmen sold their handmade products in the free town market, receiving payment either in kind or in "money," which was normally a disk or ring of silver of standard weight (1012).”
The next quote gives us some information on the relative value of the coins and the wealth that each represented. The scribe is lauding the benevolent king for his protection of the poor. “He saw to it that ... the man of one shekel did not fall a prey to the man of one mina (sixty shekels) (1143).”
The following is a comment from an essay by Bernard Lietaer. "The oldest coin currency that we know is a Sumerian bronze piece dating from before 3000 BC. On one side of the coin is a representation of a sheaf of wheat, and on the other, Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. The Sumerians called it the 'Shekel' where 'She' meant wheat, 'Kel' was a measurement similar to a bushel, hence this coin was a symbol of a value of one bushel of wheat. (The word 'shekel' survives in modern Hebrew as Israel's monetary unit.) ... The temple, as well as being a ritual center, was the storage place for the reserves of wheat that supported the priesthood, and also the community in lean times. So farmers fulfilled their religious and social obligations by bringing their contributions of wheat to the temple, and receiving in exchange a shekel coin." http://www.stim.com/Stim-x/10.1/origins/origins.html accessed 24 Apr. 2012.
In relation to the Jaredites, no specific monetary system is mentioned in their history, but they used “money” (Ether 9:11) and bought, sold and “traffic[ed] one with another” to get gain (Ether 10:23). It is therefore very likely they had some sort of monetary system. It is my opinion that the monetary system used later by the Nephites was actually copied from an earlier Jaredite one. The Nephites used a coinage denominated in senine, seon, shum, limnah, amnor, ezrom and onti (Alma 11:4-20). These coins were composed of gold or silver and were used in trade, measurements, etc. This system was not patterned after the parent Jewish monetary system. The Nephites may have borrowed it from Jaredite remnants as some of the coins bear Jaredite names 1. Or, more likely, they may have adopted the system from the Mulekites who could have learned it during their time among the Jaredites.
1. Hugh Nibley. The Prophetic Book of Mormon. 1989. p. 112.