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Barter in Prehistoric Times

The psychological explanation of barter has brought forth the theory of the marginal utility, its greatest merit. According to this theory, the subjective valuation of any economic good decreases in proportion to the number of objects of the same kind possessed by the same owner. When even two proprietors meet, each having a number of similar articles, they will gladly barter, provided political means are barred, i.e., if both parts are apparently equally strong and well-armed, or in the very early stage, are within the sacred circle of relationship. By barter, each one receives property of very high subjective value, in place of property of very low subjective value, so that both parties are gainers in the transaction. The desire of primitive people for bartering must be stronger than that of cultured ones. For at this stage man does not value his own goods, but covets the things belonging to strangers, and is hardly affected by calculated economic considerations.

On the other hand, we must not forget that there are primitive peoples for whom barter has no attraction whatever,

Cook tells of tribes in Polynesia, with whom no intercourse was possible, since presents made absolutely no impression on them, and were afterward thrown away; everything shown them they regarded with indifference, and with no desire to own it, while with their own things they would not part; in fact, they had no conception of either trade or barter.

So Westermarck is of the opinion that “barter and traffic are comparatively late inventions.” In this he stands in opposition to Peschel, who, would have it that man in the earliest known stage of development engaged in barter. Westermarck states that there is no proof

that the cave-dwellers of Perigord from the reindeer period obtained their rock-crystals, their shells from the Atlantic, and the horns of the Saiga antelope from (modern) Poland by way of barter.

In spite of these exceptions, which admit other explanations — perhaps the natives feared sorcery — the history of primitive peoples shows that the desire to trade and barter is a universal human characteristic. It can, however, take effect only when these primitive men on meeting with strangers are offered new enticing objects, since in the immediate circle of their own blood kinsmen everyone has the same kinds of property, and in their natural communism, on the average about the same amount.

Yet even then, barter, the beginning of all regular trading, can take place only when the meeting with foreigners is a peaceable one. But is there any possibility for peaceable meeting with foreigners? Is not primitive man, through his entire life, and especially at the period when barter begins, still under the apprehension that everyone of a different horde is an enemy to be feared as the wolf?

After trade is developed, it is, as a rule, strongly influenced by the “political means,” “trade generally follows robbery.” But its first beginnings are chiefly the result of the economic means, the outcome of pacific, not warlike, intercourse.

The international relations of primitive huntsmen with one another must not be confused with those existing either between the huntsmen or herdsmen and their peasants, or amongst the herdsmen themselves. There are, undoubtedly, blood feuds, or feuds because of looted women, or possibly because of violation of the districts set aside for hunting grounds; but these lack that strong incentive, which is the consequence of avarice alone, of the desire to despoil other men of the products of their labor. Therefore, the “wars” of primitive huntsmen are scarcely real wars, but rather scuffles and single combats, carried on frequently — as are the German student duels — according to an established ceremonial, and prolonged only up to the point of incapacity to fight, as one might say, “until claret has been drawn.” These tribes, numerically very weak, wisely limit bloodshed to the indispensable amount — e. g., in case of a blood vendetta feud — and thus avoid starting new vendetta blood feuds.

For this reason, pacific relations with their neighbors on an equal economic scale are much stronger, and also freer from the incentive to use political means, both among huntsmen and among primitive peasants, than among herdsmen. There are numerous examples where the former meet peaceably to exploit natural resources in common.

While yet in primitive stages of civilization, great masses of people gather together, from time to time, at places where useful objects may be found. The Indians of a large part of America made regular pilgrimages to the flint grounds; others assembled annually at harvest time at the Zizania swamps of the lakes of the Northwest. The Australians, living scattered in the Barku district, assemble from all directions for the harvest festivals at the swamp beds of the corn bearing Marsiliacae. When the bonga-bonga trees in Queensland produce a superabundant crop, and a greater store is on hand than the tribe can consume, foreign tribes are permitted to share therein.

“Various tribes agree on the common ownership of definite strips of territory, and likewise of the quarries of phonolite for hatchets.” Numerous Australian tribes have common consultations and sessions of the elders for judgment. In these, the remainder of the population form the bystanders, a custom similar to the Germanic Umstand in the primitive folk-moot.

It is but natural that such meetings should bring about barter. Perhaps this explains the origin of those “weekly fairs held by the Negroes of Central Africa in the midst of the primaeval forest wider special arrangements for the peace” and likewise the great fairs, said to be very ancient, of the fur hunters of the extreme north of the Tschuktsche.

All these things presuppose the development of pacific forms of intercourse between neighboring groups. These forms are to be found almost universally. They could very easily be developed at this period, since the discovery had not yet been made that men can be utilized as labor motors. At this stage, the stranger is treated as an enemy only in doubtful cases. If he comes with apparently peaceable intent, he is treated as a friend. Therefore, a whole code of public law ceremonies grew up, intended to demonstrate the pacific intent of the newcomer. One puts aside one’s arms and shows one’s unarmed hand, or one sends heralds in advance, who are always inviolable.

It is clear that these forms represent some kind of claim to hospitality, and in fact it is by this guest-right that peaceful trade is first made possible. The exchange of guest-gifts precedes, and appears to introduce, barter proper. It becomes, therefore, important to investigate the source of hospitality.

Westermarck, in his recent monumental work (1907), Origin and Development of Moral Concepts, states that the custom of hospitality results from two causes: curiosity for news from the stranger from afar, and still more from the fear that the stranger may be endowed with powers of sorcery, imputed to him just because he is a stranger. In the Bible, hospitality is recommended for the reason that one cannot know that the stranger may not be an angel. The superstitious race fears his curse (the Erinys of the Greeks) and hastens to propitiate the stranger. Having been accepted as a guest he is inviolable and enjoys the sacred right of the blood-related group, and is regarded as belonging to it during his stay. Therefore he partakes of the benefits of the aboriginal communism reigning in the group, and shares its property. The host demands and receives whatever he claims, the stranger obtains in turn what he asks for. When the peaceable intercourse becomes more frequent, the mutual giving of guest-presents may develop into a trading arrangement, because the trader gladly returns to the spot where he found good entertainment and a profitable exchange and where he is protected by the laws of hospitality, instead of seeking new places, where, often with danger to his life, he would first have to acquire the right to hospitality.

The existence of an “international” division of labor is, of course, presupposed before the development of a regular trade relation can begin. Such a division of labor exists much earlier and to a greater extent than is generally believed.

It is quite erroneous to suppose that the division of labor takes place only on a high scale of economic development. There are in the interior of Africa villages of iron-smiths, nay, of such as only turn out dart-knives; New Guinea has its villages of potters, North America its arrow-head makers.

From such specialties there develops trade, whether through roving merchants, or by gifts to one’s hosts, or by peace-gifts from tribe to tribe. In North America, the Kaddu trade in bows.

Obsidian was universally employed for arrow heads and knives; on the Yellowstone, on the Snake River, in New Mexico, but especially in Mexico. Thence the precious article was distributed all over the entire country as far as Ohio and Tennessee, a distance of nearly two thousand miles.

According to Vierkandt,

From the purely home-made products of primitive peoples, there results a system of trade totally distinct from that prevailing under modern conditions.… Each separate tribe has developed special aptitudes, leading to interexchange. Even among the comparatively uncivilized Indian tribes of South America, we find such differentiations.… By such a trade, products may be distributed over extraordinary distances, not in any direct way through professional traders, but through a gradual passing along from tribe to tribe. The origin of such a trade, as Bueeher has shown, is to be traced back to the exchange of guest-gifts.

Besides this exchange of guest-gifts, a trade may grow from the peace offerings which adversaries after a fight exchange as a sign of reconciliation. Sartorius reports on Polynesia:

After a war between different islands, the peace offerings for each group were something novel; and if the present and return present pleased both parties, a repetition took place, and thus again the way for exchange of products was opened. But, these, in contrast to guest-gifts, were the bases of continuing intercourse. Here, in place of the contact of individuals, tribes and peoples met. Women are the first object of barter; they form the connecting link between strange tribes, and according to evidence from many sources, women are exchanged for cattle.

We meet here an object of trade, exchangeable even without “international division of labor.” And it appears as though the exchange of women had, in many ways, smoothed the way for the traffic in merchandise, as though it had been the first step toward the peaceable integration of tribes, which accompanied the warlike integration of the formation of the State. Lippert, however, believes that the peaceful exchange of fire antedates this barter. Conceding that this custom is very ancient, he can nevertheless trace it only from rudiments of observances and of law; and since proof is no longer accessible, we shall not pursue the question further in this place.

On the other hand, the exchange of women is observed universally, and doubtless exerts an extraordinarily strong influence in the development of peaceable intercourse between neighboring tribes, and in the preparation for barter of merchandise. The story of the Sabine women, who threw themselves between their brothers and their husbands, as these were about to engage in battle, must have been an actuality in a thousand instances in the course of the development of the human race. All over the world, the marriage of near relatives is considered an outrage, as “incest,” for reasons not within the scope of this book. This directs the sexual longing toward the women of neighboring tribes, and thus makes the loot of women a part of the primary intertribal relations; and in nearly all cases, unless strong feelings of race counteract it, the violent carrying off of women is gradually commuted to barter and purchase, the custom resulting from the relative undesirability of the women of one’s own blood in comparison to the wives to be had from other tribes.

Where division of labor made at all possible the exchange of goods, the relations among the various tribes would thereafter be made serviceable to it; the exogamic groups gradually become accustomed regularly to meet on a peaceful basis. The peace, originally protecting the horde of blood relations, thereafter comes to be extended over a wider circle. One example from numberless instances:

Each of the two Camerún tribes has its own “bush countries,” places where its own tribesmen trade, and where, by intermarriage, they have relatives. Here also exogamy shows its tribe-linking power.

These are the principal lines of growth of peaceful barter and traffic; from the right to hospitality and the exchange of women, perhaps also from the exchange of fire, to the trade in commodities. In addition to this, markets and fairs, and perhaps also traders, were almost uniformly regarded as being under the protection of a god who preserved peace and avenged its violation. Thus we have brought the fundamentals of this most important sociological factor to the point where the political means enters as a cause to disturb, rearrange, and then to develop and affect the creations of the economic means.

This article is excerpted from The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically (1908), chapter 4, section a, “Traffic in Prehistoric Times.” Notes and citations have not been included. They may be found in the original.

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