Hip me to Gifting Economies

So I got involved in a spirited discussion on another message board about barter based societies before the advent of money. Someone was bemoaning the evils of credit and debt so I asked half jokingly, ‘would you rather be riding a donkey and trading a chickens for flour’?

This was met with a response from an “economist” who informed me that bartering, before money, was a myth propagated by some financial blah blah blah.

I tried to defend my position but was met with a few people who said yes bartering was a myth but there were gifting societies. Societies where foods and goods were distributed without compensation.

In pre-money cultures where living hand to mouth was a way of life, this seems a bit of a stretch. I would assume societies with no infrastructure would expect everyone to pull his or her own weight.

Plus, I’ve never heard of gifting economies. But I’m certainly open to being wrong. Can anyone here more familiar with history than I am shed a little light on this subject for me?

Here is a fantastic article on the subject:

I didn’t read the whole thread, but here’s an old one that doesn’t get into Gift giving economies directly, but has a lot of discussion on the “barter didn’t precede money”-idea:

Basically the development is likely to have been more one of informal “share your surplus”, expect others to share later local economies, that developed into more formal “I gave you this, you owe me the equivalent in the future” economies as societies became larger and more interdependent.

And this sharing is likely to have involved “giving” things away, expecting something in return, whether it be other gifts, or power.

Ref for instance Potlatch - Wikipedia

ETA: Or just read the article Babale links to …

Here’s the short version.

Barter appears in societies that used money but lost access to it. If you’re used to he idea of money, and impersonal exchanges of goods and services, you can substitute salt or chickens for gold coins and use other goods as currency.

Pre-currency societies instead rely on PERSONAL exchange of goods and services. So you and the butcher know each other, and the butcher provides you with meat, knowing that when his roof leaks you’ll be there to repair it, and that you’ll help him add a shed next week.

The butcher is relying on gifts as well. And if anyone in the village is mooching, because it’s a small system of exchanges based on real personal relationships, social pressure can easily be applied until they start pulling their weight.

I’ve never heard of them referred to as gifting economies, and I detest the use of gift as a verb anyhow, but a common form of primitivbe redistributive economy worked like this:

The big shot, or big chief, reinforces status over and over again by giving stuff to the other people in the tribe or village. This keeps them afloat while making them grateful for the chieftain’s largesse. This is often coupled with a specific recurrent event like a big feast where gifts are bestowed in front of the other tribe members with lots of pomp and puffy things said by the big chief about each recipient, so they’re being given recognition as well as material things, and all done in front of the audience which, again, reinforces the sense that the big chief is in charge and that the big chief has our welfare in mind and takes good care of us.

Similar but somewhat more egalitarian in nature, there are general-reciprocity economies where everyone’s reputation is their “currency”, where people will give you both material things and their cooperation when you ask for help with something if you have a reputation as a person who gives and shares and turns up to help. But less so if you don’t have that kind of reputation. So you want the good reputation, so you give and you pitch in.

Too late to edit, but, this has two advantages over barter. Let’s say I am the apple farmer.

  1. if I just harvested all my apples from my orchard, I have enough apples for everyone in the village. But I don’t need something right then and there from each of my neighbors. Barter makes this a problem, because apples don’t keep for months until I need a new roof. But in a gift economy, I can give everyone in the village apples today, knowing that whatever I need down the road I can ask for.

  2. if I never need construction done, I still gift the builder some apples, because he’s in good standing with the town because he helped everyone else. So he still gets apples. On the flip side, if the builder is allergic to apples but I DO need construction done, he will help me anyways because I am in good standing due to giving everyone else apples.

Money appeared relatively late in human history; the first coins were minted in the 7th century BC. There had been highly advanced and diversified civilisations long (and by long I mean millennia) before that. I can see the idea of a “gifting society” in relatively small and klose-knit societies - essentially villages - where social pressure makes sure that everyone contributes their fair share and nobody abuses the free distribution of goods by others; but the more complex it gets, the more people will expect some kind of tangible compensation for what they provide, rather than giving it away for free and relying on the mere expectations that at some stage they will receive something else.

The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, 18th century BC, includes a detailed list of fixed prices and wages for a series of goods and services and thereby demonstrates that the society it regulated was not a “gifting” one.

And the most widely used currency of all time predates coins:

Using precious metals as currency clearly predates coins though.

I agree with your point that Hammurabi’s society was far more sophisticated than a gifting society, at least as I understand the concept. But I do think the concept of money was well established in Hammurabi’s society. A quick look in two different translations shows the use of the word money and identifies a shekel as a medium of exchange.


A shekel at that time might have been a lump of metal rather than a coin, but I think it’s pretty clear it was considered money.

My suspicion is that they sort of ran in parallel; close interpersonal relationships were probably not governed by bartering, but I bet that once the relationships became less personal and those expectations of reciprocal giving of goods/helping with tasks, more formal bartering took over.

We still even see that today with stuff like helping people move. You’ll help your friends who you know you can rely on to help you in the future, and vice-versa. But if they’re a little further out, you entice them with beer and pizza. And if you don’t have any friends, you end up having to pay real money for movers.

For those interested, David Graeber’s book Debt is a popular, that is, readable, if big, account based on academic research. Smith’s notion of barter is not supported by anthropologists (Graeber was one) or archeologists. If you don’t like “gifting” think “reciprocal economies.” And potlatches and similar “giveaways” were in part about status and in part about redistributing wealth. They were not just about reinforcing the reign of the chief; such societies had more complicated ways of selecting leaders, who in any case had very little power over others

Replying to the OP, I’m certainly not an anthropologist, but I believe the concept of “gifting economies”, or whatever the proper term is, in reference to pre-money societies is an attempt to explain how division of labour and specialisation could be achieved without a medium of exchange, aka money. The majority of products generated by labour would be communal. A tribe might have hunters, fishermen, gatherers, tanners, toolmakers, etc. The products these people harvested or created would be shared around to the entire tribe. So the fisherman wouldn’t be trading fish for meat with the hunters, and the tanners wouldn’t be trading leather for knives with the toolmakers, but instead all of these products would go into a communal pool and then be shared out. But clearly there were other products that were created such as art, jewellery, personal weapons, symbolic items, etc. that were meant to be owned by individuals. So how does it work for a craftsman to trade a personal item he’s created for an individual for goods owned by the community? Basically through informal exchanges somewhat directed by the tribal leadership. The craftsman would be seen to be more esteemed than a common labourer. So his goods would be directed to the tribal leaders, the most prestigious people in the tribe. These specialty goods would also be distributed to tribal members on special occasions such as in a coming of age ritual, or at a wedding. Basically, inside the tribe, the specialty goods would be given away. But there was still an exchange going on. However, it was for esteem, rather than barter. (There probably would have been some barter as well, but not in a sense that led to money.)

Prestigious goods weren’t just valued inside the tribe. They were valued between tribes who didn’t pool resources, but did trade ordinary goods. This inter-tribal trade increased the esteem of the craftsman of the prestigious goods, and also set a value for those goods. This supported specialisation of craftsman within a tribe and gradually led to more advanced tribes with more advanced economies. Basically this specialisation and more advanced trading was the precursor to the development of money.

If you have to trade one thing for another, you are dealing with a market economy and essentially at least proto-money. If you don’t, you might be dealing with true communism, but formal gift-giving also has complicated cultural functions when it comes to mana, potlatches, and such customs. I would distinguish the latter from the basic concept where one guy may be a hunter, another a cook, a third a craftsman, yet another old and sick, etc., but everybody gets food and goods “without compensation” because there is no private property in the sense that someone can “own” food or a canoe.

I am skeptical that barter never happened prior to the introduction of money. I can accept that it wasn’t common, because in pre-modern society most of what you consumed was produced by you or your family, and informal exchange could handle the rest (“Bob, I’ve got some extra apples” …later Bob helps you repair the roof).

But it’s hard to see how long range trade could work. We know from ancient sources that tin was mined in Cornwall and taken to France. Did they just give the tin away when they got there and hope that French people would sail back later with grain or wine?

One type of economic system that predates money and yet is not a barter system nor a gift economy, is the palace economy. A redistributive system centered around a palace and the authority residing there. Quite common for a lot of the Mediterranean in the middle Bronze Age, before the rise of private mercantilism in the late BA.

Other, less centralized, redistributive systems also existed, like the Inca Empire

The very first time, they probably bartered, because between strangers is one situation where barter is known to occur. But that’s not an economy. By the time there’s regular trade, we’re talking commodity money, not barter - agreed-upon values for trade goods. Probably trade between Cornwall and the mainland was similar to trade in other places - people would send each other envoys, later with letters, and agree on exchange rates.