I've read in economics textbooks, and seen in videos like this, saying that before money, there was a barter economy was based on a coincidence of wants, and people would have to go on basically a scavenger hunt if they needed something that they didn't have the wanted exchange for. This sounds totally ridiculous that any society would be based off of this, let alone all societies before money, as it's being sold in economic texts. Nor I have ever heard of such a society that operates in such a manner, at least not locally. Maybe with some trade with other societies that local ones probably weren't totally dependent on, they would only be interested in certain products. It sounds like modern people projecting their norms on former societies, like the idea that one claims for themselves everything they use. Like the use of money, like wampum being thought of as the same as money. I read in People of the Deer by Farley Mowat that the Inuit had no concept of claiming things individually, people worked together and shared spoils together. I wouldn't think it would be totally black or white either, some things may be claimed individually, like horses, or by ruling elites, like titular ownership. Or is there ample evidence that such scavenger hunt barter economy societies were the general rule before money?

  • @Mark C. Wallace I have done plenty of research, I give an example of a society that goes against the claim with a reference. The whole point is I can't find any evidence for the claims from the video and economics textbooks, how am I supposed to do research on something I can't find?
    – user49058
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 19:35
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    In Debt the First 5000 Years Graber talks alot about this. I just noticed you are new to stack exchange. Welcome! I should have noticed that before. This platform is somewhat different than other online forums. I think for SE History, you might need to polish your question a bit. Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 20:54
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    There is likely a distinction between how goods are shared at the tribal level and how goods are traded between tribes. People get weirded out by the notion of a tribe sharing everything in a "communistic fashion" when they themselves living in a nuclear family where 2-6 people share things in much the same way. The Inuit certainly traded with the French in a barter economy. The thing to remember that the "coincidence of wants" was rarely random, but more often stable long-term. Also, and yes, paragraphs, formatting and more direct links to research would be good
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 0:50
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    (1) Barter is more common and perhaps less clear cut than you might be thinking. We've seen small scale barter economies emerge even in contemporary history, when fiat money is unavailable or lost its value. For example, prison, after a disaster, or under hyperinflation. In fact, early forms of commodity money were effectively bartering - you're exchanging goods for other goods that have intrinsic value. It only became "money" later, when the commodity was standardised and recognised as currency. (2) As others have said, better formatting for readability would improve this question.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 11:55
  • Since it's supposed to be commonplace before money, yet there are no quick simple examples given, that sounds like the answer, there weren't actually any. Something can be more believable the more far fetched it is, "they couldn't be all making it up about all societies". It sounds like something meant to sell the use of money, pretending it solves a made up problem, ignoring problems caused by ppl having to fight over everything they use.
    – user49058
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 19:22

2 Answers 2


There certainly were societies before money. It took thousands of years from the beginnings of agriculture to develop money, as of course people had no idea that they lacked money (it was an unknown unknown, rather than a known unknown, using the terminology of Donald Rumsfeld).

In subsistence societies where your neighbours grow much the same as you, and where artefacts are few and simple, there is little need for money. As elites formed (in Europe, in the Bronze Age), it became important to have prestige artefacts to differentiate themselves from the non-elites. They needed a means to acquire such artefacts, often from distant locations. The method devised was gift exchange. This was not barter, as there was no comparison of value for the gifts exchanged. Often there was no gift in return. Instead, the giver gained prestige, and the likelihood of a gift given in return some time in the future. Artefacts such as ceremonial axes made from special stone were passed from one chief to another, sometimes for hundreds of miles, gaining in prestige as they travelled further from the source of that stone. Archaeologists can trace such movements from the Bronze Age and earlier.

Barter is the next step along, when items are bartered so often that they acquire a known value. However, simple barter can be quite difficult. A simple fish-for-grain trade, repeated every few days, so easy, and the fish and grain soon have their relative values set. For an actual object rather than food, you have to find someone who has what you want, and wants what you have. This coincidence of wants is hard to achieve. In practice, the problem becomes simple with a triangular trade, and in particular where one of the items is something for which there is a high and constant demand. This is the origin of money. If you want a bow, and have an axe that you are prepared to trade for it, you find someone who wants that axe. You trade the axe for something that is very commonly traded, such as cacao beans if you are in Mexico, or a fur if you are in Russia, or a copper ingot if you are in Europe. You then find someone with a bow that they are willing to trade. They will accept your cacao beans/fur/copper ingot, as they know they can trade it on for something that they really want.

Almost all societies could use this type of barter, where you trade for something that you just want to trade on. For example, in West Africa in pre-colonial time, traders used to trade for salt in the Sahara, trade that salt for rubber or groundnuts further south, then head to the coast to trade the rubber/nuts for cloth. They then traded these goods on their way back. No money was involved, this was all just barter, one good for another. The traders knew from long experience that there was always a market for salt and cloth in the forest regions.

Many different items could be used as intermediate goods in such bartering, but one of the best was metal. Metal could be kept for a long time, could be carried, could be easily divided. Silver was particularly useful, as it was valuable. Long before coins, people in Mesopotamia used to weigh out pieces to silver cut off from a ring or bracelet to ‘buy’ something. The Vikings did them same, calling this hacksilver. Paying with silver was barter, one commodity for another.

Some references: Lars Sundstrom: The Exchange Economy of Pre-Colonial Tropical Africa. Leslie A White: The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome

  • You seem to be stating the theory, rather than presenting any evidence this is what happened. If it really was that "almost all societies could use this type of barter" then would we not expect to find some physical evidence of it occurring prior to evidence of money existing? As it is, most evidence is just that goods moved, not that the movement was motivated by something we would recognise as trade.
    – Dave
    Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 7:47

It used to be thought that was the case, that before money people simply bartered and it wasn't until money that there was a solution for coincidence of wants.

However, there is a recent thought that in early times, societies were small and local. They exchanged credit and good will. If someone in the community had a need, like didn't have enough food, someone with plenty of food might give them some. It was all a "what goes around comes around" system. Being stingy and not ever helping people who had needs would lead to an effect of others stopping helping you. I don't know if this is any less ridiculous than matching up coincidence of wants.

Barter was used only for strangers such as traveling traders.

There are also always a small number of wheeler dealers, even today. They will trade what they have that you want for things which they don't have a need for but has potential value to trade to someone else later.

Coins minted in what is now Turkey were used along the silk road. Even before that, people traded in weight of gold and silver. However those are very expensive and not on the small scale of minor purchases. A gold coin might be too much for purchasing a chicken or a piglet. There just might not be a way to make change for small purchases. So even with metal coins and weighing precious metals, most day to day existence of the vast majority of people was without using that system.

It was most likely a combination of all these. For a long time in the history of civilization, before industrialization, all but a few powerful people were peasant subsistence farmers. A farm would have a variety of products to round out a balance of one's needs. Primarily people farmed for themselves. There was some gifting and cre

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