The Origins of Money: 1. Cows and Shells

BBC Radio 3 talk by me    (15 minutes)     13 June 2011, 22: 45

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The written text may be found below, but look at this description by the producer:

“Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
But you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.” (Money, by Dana Gioia)

The history of money stretches back some 11,000 years. There have been certain key moments in its development and each essay tells their story and the resonance that these revolutionary blips have had ever since.

1. Cows – round about 9,000BC cattle were first domesticated. Soon after they became units of exchange and thus the idea of money was born: cows became cash on legs. And they still are – in certain parts of Africa commodities (especially brides) are priced in cows. Professor Keith Hart explores the early examples of money as part of an economy of living persons and things.

In the rest of the series, Essayists explore: the emergence of the very first banks; the setting of inter-regional and international standards; how the very first coins helped also foster abstract thought; and the appearance of the first forms of paper money in ancient China.

Series Producer: Paul Kobrak.

This was written before I was commissioned to write the essay, but I could not shake Paul from his belief that contemporary practices in Africa and the Pacific are evidence of the early history of money nor that money is a commodity whose origins lie in barter. It means that a century of academic ethnography has not dislodged the ideology of unilinear evolution. I tried to insert more about the contemporary crisis of the money system, but this was excised. The line in every sense had to be maintained. I still managed to keep some of the message in what I read and the notion of “an economy of living persons and things” was added to the notice. But if ever evidence were needed of anthropologists’ collective failure to dispel the idea of “primitive” money from the public imagination, this is it. And why would they listen to us if we refuse to engage with questions of world history?

Cows and shells

As soon as I was old enough, I was given three pence a week pocket money. I was a regular customer at Mrs. Hewitt’s sweet shop. She reserved my favourites for me and sometimes gave me extra measure. When she sold the shop, she introduced her regulars to the new owner. “This is Keith and he likes wine gums, pear drops and liquorice allsorts.” It was a time of rationing, following the Second World War. So, in addition to my three pence, which bought two ounces of sweets, I handed over a coupon entitling the bearer to that quantity. One day when I was five, my mother announced that sugar rationing was over. From now on, people could buy as many sweets as they liked. I rushed to Mrs. Hewitt’s and ordered sweets up to the limit of my imagination, three bags of two ounces each. “That will be nine pence, please.” “But I only have three pence. They said you could now have as much as you like.” “Well, you need the money too.” And that is how I learned the bitter lesson that money, at least the stuff I grew up with, is also a rationing device. Markets are democratically open to anybody. All you need is the money.

Since then, I’ve been obsessed with getting to know what money really is and how to get round its restrictions. I became an anthropologist in part to explore alternatives to the money system. But why would we be interested in the origins of money today? Because it is changing dramatically before our eyes. If money is the ground on which we stand, the financial shocks of the last three years have vividly brought home how shaky that foundation is. The physical substance of money is giving way to bits whizzing around cyberspace; personal credit is now available on terms that were unimaginable a few years ago; and we read about vast sums of money being created and disappearing overnight. So what is happening to money? Where did it come from and where is it going? Here I will look at some things that have been described as “primitive money” and are still in use: cows in Africa and shells in Melanesia. They don’t tell us where our money comes from, but they do help us gain a broader understanding of what money is and what it does.


But of course we all know where money came from. Our remote ancestors started swapping things they had too much of and others wanted. But it wasn’t always easy to find someone who wanted what you had and had what you wanted. For many natural products, the timing of supply and demand does not coincide. So some objects became valued as tokens to hold for use in future exchanges. It might be salt or ox-hides, but especially precious metals. Gold, silver and copper were scarce, attractive, useful, durable, portable and divisible. Barter’s limitations were lifted as soon as sellers would accept these money tokens, knowing that they could use them later. The money stuff succeeded because it was the supreme barter item, valued not only as a commodity, but also as a means of exchange.

All this is a myth of course, but what does it tell us? It tells us that money is a real thing and a scarce commodity. That it is more efficient and originated in barter. When Adam Smith first told this story, he claimed that the “Wealth of Nations” resulted from the slow working out of a deep-seated propensity in human nature, “to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another”. He went on,

“It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts. Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.”

At least Smith acknowledged a degree of social complexity in these transactions: the idea of contract, private property (mine and yours) and equivalence (fairness), none of which could plausibly be traced to the non-human world. His latter-day successors have not shown similar modesty, routinely claiming that behaviour in Wall Street is driven by impulses that are not just eternally human, but shared with the animals too, or at least the primates. Listen to Nicholas Dunbar in his book, Inventing Money:

“In chimpanzee communities, individuals exchange gifts (such as fruit or sexual favours) within a group to cement alliances, and punish those who attempt to cheat on such mutually beneficial relationships. Anthropologists believe that early humans started trading in much the same way. The word they use to describe this behaviour is ‘reciprocity’ and our personal relationships work on this basis.”

That’s quite a lot of metaphysics piled onto the observation that chimps sometimes pleasure each other and pass on the odd bit of fruit. Two claims are being made here: that private property is natural, therefore inevitable; and that it underpins most other important things in our lives. Adam Smith seems almost cautious in comparison.


The first time I arrived in the market square of a West African village, I saw four beefy men dragging a young woman by the hair, kicking and screaming. “It’s alright”, said my companion, “they’re just her brothers”. She was married to an old man with many wives, a major political figure; she had run away several times with her lover; the old man demanded his bride-wealth back – the standard payment of four cows to his wife’s lineage; but her brothers had already spent the cows on a marriage and they didn’t want to break their alliance with him; so this was a public affirmation of their commitment to the marriage.

Modern capitalist economies base the accumulation of wealth on production of inanimate things for sale. Traditional African economies had as their object the production of human life. So cattle were used to secure the reproduction of kin groups through marriage. When Europeans first saw women being exchanged for cows, they thought they were being bought. In fact, bride-wealth consists of animal tokens whose payment secures the marriage and allows the recipients to find another woman to replace the one they had lost. They are rationing coupons more than money. The power of this custom is still strong, even in South Africa, where it is known as lobola. The growing African middle class there, when choosing between an expensive marriage payment and the purchase of a new house or car, often opt for the former, even though it places them in substantial debt. Of course, throughout Africa today, cash payments are often substituted for transfers of livestock.

In these societies, animals were traditionally the main means of saving and accumulation. The word for interest is sometimes “water” on the analogy of a loan of cattle. If a cow has offspring while on loan, the borrower, when returning its mother, kept the calf as a reward for having watered them. Note that the interest was paid to the borrower who did the work! Cattle are thus a source of increase, a store of wealth and a means of payment in marriage and for other large debts. They are not a standard of value or a medium of exchange, since very little can be measured by them or exchanged for them. Most people are reluctant to sell them just for cash, much as we would prefer to replace a car with another one rather than sell it to pay our debts.

In recent decades, the fastest-growing sector of world trade has been in services such as entertainment, education, media, software and information. This trend makes the economy more about what people do for each other (services) than the physical objects that make up their material livelihood. After early industrialization, the predominant focus of the world economy is reverting to the development of human beings. We have a lot to learn from the human economies of Africa, where people always had priority over things and cows still have some, if not all of the properties of modern money.


As an anthropologist, I have been inspired by a famous exchange after the First World War between the founders of modern anthropology in Britain and France concerning whether shell valuables circulating in Melanesia were money or not. The basic positions on “primitive money” have never been expressed more clearly. Bronislaw Malinowski published Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922, when the year’s hit movie was Nanook of the North, a tale of Eskimo resilience in the face of a harsh environment. After the slaughter of the trenches, the old imperialist story about “our” mission to civilize “them” lay in tatters. So, when Malinowski produced his account of native adventurers, heirs to the tradition of noble heroes, his story found a receptive audience.

The kula ring of the Trobriand Islanders and their neighbours provided an allegory of the world economy. Here was a civilization spread across many small islands, each incapable of providing a decent livelihood by itself, that relied on international trade mediated by the exchange of precious ornaments. There were no states, money or capitalists and, instead of buying cheap and selling dear, the trade was sustained by an ethic of generosity. Homo economicus was not only absent, but upstaged by comparison, revealed as a shabby and narrow-minded successor to a world the West had lost.

Malinowski was adamant that kula valuables – arm-shells and necklaces circulating in opposite directions — were not money in that they did not function as a medium of exchange and standard of value. But his French contemporary Marcel Mauss, in his celebrated essay, The Gift, held out for a broader approach:

“On this reasoning…there has only been money when precious things…have been really made into currency – namely have been inscribed and impersonalized, and detached from any relationship with any legal entity, whether collective or individual, other than the state that mints them… One only defines in this way a second type of money — our own”.

Mauss believed that the limits of society must be extended to become ever more inclusive. Society has to be made and remade, sometimes from scratch. On a diplomatic mission or a first date, we give prsents. The kula valuables enable inter-island exchange by forming partnerships between the persons who guarantee the peace. For Mauss this made them a kind of money, if not of the impersonal kind we are familiar with. Heroic gift-exchange is designed to push the limits of society outwards. No society is ever economically self-sufficient. In addition to setting social limits at the local level, a community must also extend its reach abroad. This is why money in some form and the markets it makes possible are universal.

Now money is often portrayed as a lifeless object separated from persons, whereas in fact it is a creation of human beings, imbued with the collective spirit of the living and the dead. As a token of society, it must be impersonal in order to connect individuals to the universe of relations to which they belong. But people make everything personal, including their relations with society. This two-sided relationship is universal, but highly variable. The kula canoe expeditions were dangerous and magical because their crews were temporarily outside the realm of normal society. Neoliberal globalization and the digital revolution in communications have led to a rapid expansion of money and markets in recent decades. Society has been extended beyond its national limits, becoming more unequal and more unstable in the process. Reliance on the pound sterling and the barter myth of money’s origins will not help us find solutions. We need to rethink what money is for and what we might do with it. Other traditions, such as those of Africa and the Pacific, may show us how to make any future economy more human.

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Category: Anthropology | Money