Money and Material I: Archaic means of payment



The origin of money doesn’t lie in barter or commerce

Money isn’t the same as money. Because money isn’t immediately and from its very beginning the money that today famously makes the world go ‘round. It certainly does not yet rule the world even if some things are rudimentarily used in ways that today we know of from money.


Contrary to what most presume, its origin doesn’t lie in barter or commerce. The usual assumption is that the people bought and traded like they do today, the only difference being that it was without money, instead it was by exchanging a good for a good. In that people later began using money in place of one of the exchanged goods, they quasi-invented money. But the fact that people sell each other what they need, whether for money or for another good, is historically a recent phenomenon. In all cultures things were only then also used for purchases if they had previously functioned in a certain context as value: in the context of an archaic payment.

Money is there to pay for something

Also payments long do not have the meaning we connect with the term, namely that money is there to pay for something. Payments are initially part of all archaic communities of people to settle specific reciprocal obligations. This «obligated-ness» must on the one side be reinforced through the exchange of gifts, but it especially demands that an obligation towards others be compensated. And this compensation is the archaic form of payment.

The guilt to be compensated can derive from a misdeed: when a man is killed by another clan, compensation for that is blood revenge: payment in the archaic sense. The clan of the murdered man in turn kills a man from the offending clan and thus the guilt is cancelled and peace is restored. But compensation can also be made when the offending clan offers appropriate gifts to the injured clan. With this ritual gift-giving the guilt is just as fully compensated as it would be through revenge, so this is also archaic payment for this guilt.

Various things were customary as payment

The guilt is not necessarily as burdensome as in this case, much more usually involving the exchange of gifts for a positive obligation. The payment is then in consideration of actual or hoped for assistance, or in a marriage as compensation for the bride who comes from a different family. Depending on the occasion, the things that serve as payment may be very precisely defined. In each case, however, various things are – or were – possible and customary: the origin of our money but still a long way from our money.

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