The Origins of the Economy: A Comparative Study of Distribution in Primitive and Peasant Economies

The Origins of the Economy: A Comparative Study of Distribution in Primitive and Peasant Economies

The Origins of the Economy: A Comparative Study of Distribution in Primitive and Peasant Economies

The Origins of the Economy: A Comparative Study of Distribution in Primitive and Peasant Economies

Excerpt

Many scholars have speculated about the major differences between the economies (comprising consumption, production, and distribution) of human beings and their primate cousins. Certainly the economies of men, as well of apes and monkeys, feature consumption. And insofar as we label as "production" primitive man's gathering of plant food, both groups of economies feature production. The economies of the two groups do differ greatly in the matter of the distribution of goods and services, an activity resulting in consumption of something by someone other than the producer. Leaving aside the distribution by parents to their offspring, the economies of human beings encompass a wide variety of other types of distribution, while the economies of other primates feature almost no distribution. Along these lines of argumentation many have made a good--but not completely airtight--case that distribution represents the distinctive feature of homo sapiens in comparison to other known primate groups.2 Such a notion undoubtedly explains much of the great interest, as well as the controversy, concerning questions about the origins of various types of distribution.

Violently conflicting opinions can be found on a wide variety of topics in this subject area. How did money begin? Why do some societies have slavery while others do not? Can we fruitfully define primitive and peasant economies in terms of distribution, rather than by reference to the primary mode of food production? Is exchange between friendly social equals always reciprocal? If not, how can we explain such imbalances? How can we predict which societies feature net marriage payments from the family of a prospective groom to the family of his prospective bride and which societies feature the reverse net flow of resources? Do cooperative labor exchanges disappear at higher levels of economic development? If so, why? Many more such controversial questions about distribution in primitive and peasant societies can be found in the literature. Unfortunately, up to now these questions have not, for the most part, been answered in a very convincing manner. They number among the questions that I attempt to explore in the following chapters in a more satisfactory fashion.

This book is a study in comparative primitive economic systems, economic anthropology, and economic prehistory. It focuses on the conditions within societies which have led to the employment of different types of distributional mechanisms and institutions. I investigate all major types of exchange and transfers of goods and services both within and between precapitalist economies and test a variety of hypotheses about the origins of such distributional patterns, using a worldwide sample of 60 primitive and peasant societies.

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