The Gift Economy

Watercolor by James G. Swan, depicting the Klallam people celebrating a potlatch, in 1859. A potlatch is a feast that involves gift-giving, practiced by Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.
Watercolor by James G. Swan, from 1859, depicting the Klallam people celebrating a potlatch. A potlatch is a feast that involves gift-giving, practiced by Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.

What the heck did people do before money was invented? Did they really use the barter system, and trade chickens for firewood, or cows for concubines?

Nope. Well maybe sometimes. But it wasn’t much of a “system”. Anthropologists who’ve studied this matter say that there is no evidence that any society or economy ever relied primarily on any barter system.

Instead, they say that our ancient ancestors relied upon a gift economy.

The noble savages of our past gave gifts to each other. And it was this gift giving that brought ancient communities together, and maintained the durability of families and tribes for generation after generation.

It worked sort of like this:

Let’s say that dastardly Og family, who lives across the river, sends an emissary over to your family, bearing a beautifully carved spear. This person presents the spear as a gift. Rather than seizing the advantage and running this competitor through with the spear, your family gratefully accepts the gift as a high honor.

A few moons are allowed to pass, because proper gifting protocol often requires a time lag. Then your family sends you across the river, bearing a colorfully painted clay pot. It’s presented as a gift to the Og family. Rather than breaking this pot over your head, the Ogs gratefully accept the gift, treating it also as a great honor.

This gift exchange allows mutual feelings to warm between the two competing families. They establish more frequent contact. They intermarry. And they eventually forge an alliance. They become a tribe, while continuing to give gifts back and forth, to maintain tribal loyalty.

Anthropologists say that this is how primitive societies thrived.

But they say that when money is introduced into a gift economy, it acts as an acid upon primitive communities. Families and tribes break apart. Individuals tend to go their own way. Meanwhile, a larger, more central government takes over and enforces the law of the land. It is this central government that ensures the value of the money, by creating a demand for it, through taxation.

By contrast, a pure gift economy relies upon presents. And it is those presents that ensure presence. The presence of those you love, living and laboring in the community you’ve known all your life.

But that was the lifestyle of our ancient ancestors, and not our current, money-based lifestyle. In today’s world, we give less presents, and receive less presence. Nonetheless, we continue to hang onto some traditions of gift giving; usually at birthdays, anniversaries, and of course, Christmas.

Our gift-giving traditions are relicts from ancient times. For example, families gather this time of year bearing goodwill, good gifts, and sometimes not so good gifts. But regardless of what kind of gift we unwrap, it’s customary to treat it as a treasure, and act as if we’ve been honored (before we head to the Returns Department of Walmart).

And that’s because the greatest gift is not in the presents themselves, but in the presence. The presence of our loved ones during those brief precious hours or days that we have the chance to meet and catch up with each others’ lives.

I hope that is how it works out for you this holiday season. In the ancient spirit of the gift economy, may your gifts be exchanged with warm hearts, and a sense of mutual honor. And may you have a very merry Christmas, and receive lots of enjoyable Christmas presence!

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