Without a Form of Currency, Ancient Mesopotamian Workers Were Paid in Beer Rations

A 5,000-year-old clay tablet from the British Museum depicts a worker getting paid in the delicious malted beverage
beer tablet

Wikimedia Commons / BabelStone / CC BY-SA 3.0

Tablets like this depict the world's oldest work-for-beer programs.

Barflies everywhere might be looking for a time machine back to ancient Mesopotamia.

A clay tablet from 5,000 years ago shows workers getting paid for their sweat in daily beer rations. We already know of other historical eras where workers were paid in beer—pyramid builders were paid four to five liters per day — but the remarkable aspect of this is the age of the tablet, dating back to 3300 BC, which places it among the earliest written records to survive until the present day.

The tablet displays a system called cuneiform. The system helped Mesopotamians — who lived in modern-day Iraq — to keep track of payments, trades, and other transactions. As a British official marvels (in the manner only Brits can): “What’s amazing for me is that this is a society where the economy is in its first stages, there is no currency, no money.

“So how do they get around that? Well, the symbols tell us that they have used beer – beer glorious beer, I think that is absolutely tremendous; there is no liquidity crisis here, they are coming up with a different way of getting around the problem of the absence of a currency and at the same time sorting out how to have a functioning state."

Given their long-standing love affair with old beer, it’s no surprise that the English are absolutely delighted with this idea — in fact, most of them probably wish they could be paid like this today!


Regardless, the curators at the British Museum will continue to study the 130,000 similar tablets they have, within which hopefully lies rules to games they played to make their wages disappear.