Before the 1849 Gold Rush, Native Californians spent tens of thousands of years practically sitting on piles of gold. It’s not like the metal was buried in deep underground veins; much of it could be retrieved from sediment in the streams. Despite gold being treasured the whole world round, the Native Americans fixated on silly things like beads and feathers. If money is a collective hallucination, maybe the North American Indians simply huffed the wrong peace pipe.
In simple social organizations, individuals have more or less homogenous roles. They hunt, they gather, they mate. Some are more powerful than others, but it’s a fairly one-dimensional measure of environmental fitness. The items they collect are similarly homogenous.
Precious metals emerge when a population undergoes socioeconomic transformation and gains a higher degree of specialization, creating a need for status differentiation. It often coincides with hunter-gatherer tribes transitioning to sedentary life. When a group increases in size and complexity, you care less about where you rank amongst your peers and more about how your peer group ranks relative to greater society. A warrior might not care about being the wealthiest warrior, but it is crucial that the warrior class be considered superior to the farmers.
In the early goldbearing civilizations of South America and Europe, only rulers and religious leaders were allowed to wear gold. The Ancient Egyptians believed that gold came from the sun god Ra, and only kings could possess it.
We see the same status differentiation emerge in modern times. Early cars all looked the same and every color was black. If you had one, you were well off, and that was enough. Then Packard came along and invented the luxury automobile, a way to distinguish the truly wealthy from the merely rich. Now Tesla takes it to a whole ‘nother level: It’s no longer enough to signal wealth; we must also signal virtue.
Eventually, society evolves to the point where a well-marked social ladder becomes less important than distinguishing the settlement within a larger group of city-states. This is when people start building big compensatory monuments like temples and pyramids and walls.
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans lived in relatively egalitarian tribes. Their social structures didn’t warrant the effort required to incorporate a distinctive collectible like gold.
It’s not that the Native Californians couldn’t wrap their heads around precious metals – By 1849, over half the gold prospectors were the same Indians who had ignored it just a few years earlier. Just like in 4000 BC, the elite class didn’t like the idea of commoners possessing gold. California passed the Government and Protection of Indians Act of 1850, which made it legal to capture and enslave Native Americans. It’s called a “Protection” Act because before that, white people were shooting the Indians who tried to pan for gold. We were such assholes.
Price DT, Brown JA. Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers: The Emergence of Cultural Complexity, 1985.