Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Wikipedia claims that:
Contrary to popular conception, there is no evidence of a society or economy that relied primarily on barter.[2] Instead, non-monetary societies operated largely along the principles of gift economics. When barter did in fact occur, it was usually between either complete strangers or would-be enemies.[3]
It cites the work of two anthropologists (Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies and David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value) in justification.

The claim is misleading. There was extensive trade, across long distances, in societies without money (which, in the world before printing, essentially meant before/without coins). This was so in hunter-gatherer/forager societies: there is evidence of long distance trade in Australia before European arrival, for example. It was even more so in agrarian societies. Thus the Khmer Empire had no coinage but the testimony of Chinese ambassador/commercial attache Zhou Daguan—the only eyewitness evidence we have for the Empire—is that there were vigorous markets and a significant foreign trade community.

It is perfectly true that gift-connections and guest-host connections could be very important in pre-money societies, but these were often implicit exchanges: a form of mediated trade. The almost universal arrangement in forager societies of men hunt and women gather was precisely such an implicit exchange. (The one known exception was a society where the foragers exchanged meat for the produce of the neighbouring farming society: so both men and women hunted and then traded—i.e. bartered—what they caught.)

Similarly, when Chinese sources talk of ‘tribute’ what they are often doing is reconstruing trade relations as an acknowledgement of Chinese superiority, of China being the “Middle Realm”. Notably in the exchange of horses-for-silk that was so central to the trade networks of Eurasia for so long.

The reason why rulers could introduce coins so successfully is precisely because there were already considerable barter-trading which coins make dramatically cheaper and easier. When Adam Smith wrote of:
a certain propensity in human nature … the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.
he was far more accurate than what Wikipedia™ is trying to claim.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for introducing me to Mauss and Graeber... I've previously found Charles Eisentstein's interpretation of the Gift Economy helpful (more at and this has guided some of my thinking in trying to set up a website, closer to barter than gift, at http:/

    Graeber & Mauss added to Amazon Wishlist...