Sunday, 8 May 2011

Prehistoric Gift Exchange

Grade: 1st

The concept of ‘gift exchange’ has been widely applied in archaeological interpretations, particularly those relating to prehistoric societies. Outline the key types and elements of gift exchange using ethnographic and archaeological examples to illustrate your answer. Briefly comment on the considerations that should accompany the use of ethnographic studies you include.

Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist was the first to come up with and study the idea of gift exchange. In which societies reinforced relationships by the exchange of gifts. However it was not merely as simple as this. The theory of gift exchange occurs mainly in societies which lack a monetary economy. This makes the act of giving much more significant and consequently a bigger process revolves around it. Not only does the act set up social dynamics it also sets an obligation on the receiver of the gift to return the act with another gift. This makes gift exchange a very social process.

By studying current ethnographic societies who still take part in gift exchange as a way of life and by looking at archaeological evidence we can build a picture of the many types of gift exchange and the way in which people would have acted this out. However it is important to factor in the idea of ethnocentrism when looking at how other cultures carried out gift exchange. We cannot judge other cultures from the perspective of our own. Western societies will have preconceived ideas of value and equivalences which cannot be applied to others.

Down the line exchange

Louriston Sharp studied the Australian nomadic tribe called the Yir Yiront who practised a form of down the line exchange. The technology central to their existence was the stone axe. However because of a lack of natural resources they were unable to manufacture their own and instead acquired them through exchange. The value of these objects was measured in their distance from the source of the material to make them and therefore unavailability of the raw material. Because the stone axes were seen as a prized commodity tribal elders alone were allowed to own them however those that would have used the stone axes were manual labourers and therefore not elite enough to own them. This meant that the objects would have to be borrowed within the tribe from fathers and uncles ect. (Williams 2008)

The circulation of early Neolithic pottery and stone axes can be used as an example of down the line exchange. In this case is it not just the artefacts that are moving around from their origin but also the raw materials as well. There are example of flint nodules coming from the south and east of Britain and being moved to western and northern parts of Britain. Certain types of pottery have also been seen to move in this way during the Neolithic. A round based pottery called Hembury ware made out of a distinctive type of clay called gabbroic which is found in the Lizard in Cornwall has also been found in Dorset and Wiltshire showing that materials were being moved from community to community. We can infer from this evidence that if there was a movement of objects and raw materials then also a movement of ideas would have occurred as well (Edmonds 1995 55-56). 

“Many of these dispersal patterns are likely to be the result of hand-to-hand contact rather than bulk trade.” (Edmonds 1995 56)

The quote suggests that from looking at the dispersal evidence that the word trade cannot be applied here. The movement of pottery and stone axes was small scale and most likely only carried out by elite individuals.

“It is useful to consider the role of the gift in non-capitalists societies, where identities are closely tied to the possession and use of things. (Edmonds 1995 56)

Relationships and bonds were created by the act of gift giving in the Neolithic and greatly aided the movement of ideas between communities. Also as the gift is past from person to person it must acquire a history which refers to the social process of the exchange of objects and also to future ties and obligations which must go hand in hand with the act of gift giving in these ancient societies.

Complex Gift exchange

Bronislaw Milinowski made an extensive study of circulating exchange systems of artefacts within the Kula ring in Eastern New Guinea. Exchange here was an expedition which could often be perilous however it was a very integral part of their tribal life.

“It is based primarily upon the circulation of two articles of high value, but of no real use, these are arm shells made of the Conus Millepunctatus, and necklets of red shell-shell discs, both intended for ornaments, but hardly ever used.” (Malinowski 1920 97)

Another aspect of the Kula exchange systems very complex rules is that a lifelong relationship has to have been made by any participant in the Kula whether these are people in their community or overseas communities. These partnerships are called Karayta’u and they are on mutual obligations to exchange with one another. Not only is this partner supposed to also be open to exchange with only those in their partnership but they are also obliged to offer assistance when ever needed of which this act would of course be returned in some way. As we can see there is an intense social process that revolves around the giving and receiving of these objects (Milinowski 1920 98).

However the objects are not always the focus of exchange, Livestock and food can also be part of the process.

“All these trading systems are based upon the exchange of indispensable or highly useful utilities, such as pottery, sago, canoes, dried fish and yams.” (Milinowski 1920 97)

This quote proves that not all objects exchanged as part of the Kula ring have no real use like the necklaces and bracelets. As we can see food and even the canoes were traded?

There is also a very complex system of utilitarian exchanges where the objects never remain in one person’s hands for any lengthy period of time. Thus the armshells and necklets are never really owned by anyone, they are in a constant cycle. What is made very clear by the people that use the Kula ring is the idea of equivalence. Once an object is put forward for an exchange the return gift from the receiving party must at some point return a gift of equivalence. If a new object is found to be particularly prized then the fame of it spreads throughout the Kula tribes and offerings will be made to obtain it, these offerings come in the form of food such as bananas and yams, or even objects of great value are offered such as axes (Milinowski 1920 98).

Because of the social connotations of the people that are allowed to exchange the gift, the very act of being the gift giver can make you the ‘Big Man.’ This can be applied to exchanges during the Neolithic in Britain. 

“The evidence may reflect a social order which has much in common with what anthropologists term ‘Big Man’ systems.” (Edmonds 1995 133-124)

As will be seen later the concept of the ‘Big Man’ can not only be applied to the gift giver but also the main chiefs and elite individuals or communities which lead to the organisation of construction in Neolithic Britain of Causewayed Enclosures which have been termed ‘areans for exchange’ (Thomas 1999 38).
Incremental Gift exchange

An ethnographic example of incremental gift exchange is that of the Moka tribes of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea, who exchange items with the neighbouring tribe of Enga Tee. The value of an item here is determined by the amount of time and skill involved in making it, also value may be placed on an item that is seen to have pedigree or a myth behind it associated with its ancestral origin. Their most highly valued gifts of exchange are pigs.

“The antiquity of pigs in the highlands date back to perhaps 9000 or 10,000 years, which suggests their fundamental role in the historical exchange economies of the region.” (Feil 1982 292)

The role of pigs in their exchange systems became vastly important to a persons social standing. The pigs were also used as a source of food so their value as exchange items had to weigh up against their use as valuable sources of protein. Because of the value of pigs they were used to promote someone’s social prestige, for example, to gain wives and compensate enemies. The concept of the ‘Big Man’ is therefore very relevant here. In many ways the Moka exchange system can be compared to that of the Kula ring. However the exchange is not an exchange of equivalence meaning that once you have received a gift you would then have to better the initial gift, this type of exchange can lead to fighting.

“Styles of leadership emphasise the importance of male achievement, the ability to marshal wealth and mobilise supporters, to engage in wars and settle argument.” (Strathern 1979 530) 

Because of the Kula’s exchange of equivalence it never leads to fighting and therefore they are a peaceful society. Whereas the Moka always have to better the initial gift causing fighting and the outbreak of wars. 

Moka use stone symbols of pigs when meeting to exchange gifts this can be compared to Neolithic causewayed enclosures (‘arenas of exchange’ J. Thomas and F. Pryor).


“The concept of reciprocity is one of the fundamental drives to action among the Moari.” (MacCormack 1976 92)

What this means can again be compared to the exchange systems of the Kula ring where importance is placed on equivalent return of a gift. However with the Moari, New Zealand, the idea of compensation is also applied to certain situations. For example, in extreme cases if a person has killed someone in your family then family members would be allowed to take the life of the killer and if not they could even kill a member of his family. When this same concept is applied to gift exchange it becomes important to return a gift of equivalent value. However you are also obliged to give as much as you can afford (MacCormack 1976 92-93)

Potlach is a north American Indian term meaning a variety of things to do with gift exchange including to feed and to consume, to exchange gifts and place of being situated. All of this is carried out at a ceremony or festival.

“Potlach is an example of a total system of giving, each gift is part of a reciprocity in whivh the honour of the giver and the recipient are engaged.” (Mauss 1969 forward xi)

Potlach could be said to encompass all of the many types of gift exchange mentioned here. One example of a society using potlatch is the Kwakiuti tribes studied by Frank Boas 1924. The tribe practise ceremonies at winter which are controlled by noble members of the tribe.

“Only the two head chiefs can become cannibal dancers.” (Boas 1924 331)

Kwakiuti trbes and R. Bradley c. consumption in the Bronze age meaning ritual feasting links to storage and over collection

Briefly comment on the considerations that should accompany the use of ethnographic studies that you include.


BOAS, F., 1924. The social organisation of the tribes of the North Pacific coast. American Anthropologist. 26 (3), 323-332

EDMONDS, M., 1995. Stone tools and society: Working stone in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. B T Batsford Ltd. London.

FEIL, D. K., 1982. From Pigs to Pearlshells: The Transformation of a New Guinea Highlands Exchange Economy. American Ethnologist. Vol 9, No 2. Economic and Ecological Processes in Society and Culture. 291 - 306

MACCORMACK, G., 1976. Reciprocity. Man. 20 (1), 89-103

MALINOWSKI, B., 1920. Kula; Circulating exchange of valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea. Man, 20, 97-105.

MAUSS, M., 1969. The Gift: The form and reasons for exchange in the archaic societies. Translated from French by W. D. Halls. Routledge. London

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND., Knife of Irish flint. (Photograph). National Museum of Scotland. ?)

STRATHERN, A., 1979. Gender, Ideology and Money in Mount Hagen. Man. 14, (3) 530-548 

SZANO, N., 2005. Armband used in the Kula exchange. (photograph) Unemumerated. (Assessed 16 November 2005) 

THOMAS, J., 1999. Understanding the Neolithic. Routledge Taylor and Francis group. London.

WILLIAMS, M., 2008. Ethics, Information Systems, and a Steel Ax.Available from: (assessed 2008)

ZINKOVA, M., 2000. Kula bracelet with insert. (Photograph) Wikipedia. (Assessed 14th January 2008)

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