Social currencies, extremely important, yet unrelated to trade, predate market currencies and coinage

These blinders are all the more ironic when one looks at the anthropological literature on what used to be called “primitive money”—that is, the sort one encounters in places where there are no states or markets—whether Iroquois wampum, African cloth money, or Solomon Island feather money, and discovers that such money is used almost exclusively for the kinds of transactions that economists don’t like to have to talk about.

In fact, the term “primitive money” is deceptive for this very reason, since it suggests that we are dealing with a crude version of the kind of currencies we use today. But this is precisely what we don’t find.

Often, such currencies are never used to buy and sell anything at all. Instead, they are used to create, maintain, and otherwise reorganize relations between people: to arrange marriages, establish the paternity of children, head off feuds, console mourners at funerals, seek forgiveness in the case of crimes, negotiate treaties, acquire followers—almost anything but trade in yams, shovels, pigs, or jewelry.

Often, these currencies were extremely important, so much so that social life itself might be said to revolve around getting and disposing of the stuff.

Clearly, though, they mark a totally different conception of what money, or indeed an economy, is actually about. I’ve decided therefore to refer to them as “social currencies,” and the economies that employ them as “human economies.”

By this I mean not that these societies are necessarily in any way more humane (some are quite humane; others extraordinarily brutal), but only that they are economic systems primarily concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings.

Historically, commercial economies—market economies, as we now like to call them—are a relative newcomer. For most of human history, human economies predominated.


This is one of the many passages and charts I find in books and articles on a daily basis. They span many disciplines, including:

I occasionally add a personal note to them.

The whole collection is available here.