Rosemary Joyce Ph.D.

What Makes Us Human

Money, Money, Money — In a Cave Man's Life?

"Man the tool-maker" meets Material Girl: social life ensues?

Posted Mar 03, 2012

Or come to think of it, then there's... no, wait. I probably have done enough damage to all of you with catchy lyrics stuck in your brain now.

Money, it turns out, occupies a very important place in our cultural life. Money is part of what makes us human. As other proposed hallmarks of human-ness have fallen by the wayside, I have yet to see a proposal that any non-human animal uses money.

(Googling this morning turned up one member of the general public who had the question why animals don't use money in mind-- but let's just say the reception this question got was less than enthusiastic.)

But until today, I would have said that the professional literature in economic anthropology saw money as an attribute of relatively recent societies (in human evolutionary terms): complex societies with more differentiated divisions of labor, agrarian and even urban societies.

So I sat up and paid great attention to the story on Live Science, headlined Tools May Have Been First Money. The article presented claims that hand axes 250,000 to 700,000 years old might have been the first human money. Quoting Mimi Lam's talk at the AAAS, the report ends with the punchline that comes closest to justifying the provocative headline:

tools eventually transformed into being used as literal currency. The Chinese exchanged tools as money, which eventually turned into representations of tools, which were even featured on coins.

Now, I happen to have a long-term fascination with money. (Pause for laughter.) OK, with the anthropological study of money. This is a natural for someone working in Mesoamerica, where, in the famous phrase of Rene Millon, "money grew on trees".

Whether cacao, described in this image-- which conjures up a contradiction between modern views of money as something that is issued by central governments, and so cannot be consumed or organically reproduced-- is actually "money" depends on what money is. For economists and other social scientists, money has multiple meanings: a medium of exchange; a standard of value; a store of value; and a measure of accounting. These do not all need to go together.

Cacao, the source of chocolate that Millon discussed, serves as a great example of the anthropological complexity of what is meant by "money". Early Spanish reports described cacao beans being used in Mexican markets in the way that coinage was used in sixteenth century Spain, to transact purchases of commodities. More subtle modern analyses have demonstrated that cacao is better thought of as a standard of value, a means for two people to agree on the exchange value of commodities, rather than so literally as a kind of pocket change, what we would call a medium of exchange. Money, in anthropological analyses, is a covering term for both of these meanings, but they do not always go together. Not everyone in ancient Mexico would have had access to cacao beans; the authority or right to use these rarities was not necessarily generalized to the entire population. This aspect of what has been called the morality of exchange is central to how anthropologists approach the vexing term "money".

In my own work, I have explored how in ancient Mexico, cacao and other select materials-- jade, woven cotton cloth, and yes, tools (in this case, bronze "axe-moneys") accrued value and served in different spheres of the economy. Cotton cloth rendered as tribute to higher political authorities also served as a standard of value, like cacao beans. Cacao was an important part of marital contracts, and otherwise, saw restricted consumption that marked the noble class as distinct from the commoner class, governed by what are usually called sumptuary laws, rather than serving as a commonly disseminated medium of exchange. Jade beads (in circulation by around 1000 BC) and bronze axes that developed relatively late in West Mexico (after 700 AD) may have come closest to media of exchange, to currency.

The Live Science story confuses terminology that has to be used in very precise ways. It starts by saying that hand axes were "the first commodity" due to their durability and utility. Live Science quotes Lam for a definition of commodity as "A marketable good or service that has value and is used as an item for exchange".

But commodities are not money. From Live Science we learn that these axes were standardized, and thus "took on a symbolic meaning". Here, we are on well-traveled ground that sees money as a symbolic "standard of value", an abstract entity with which two human beings can calibrate the price they place on some commodity, an action facilitated, theoretically, by having the physical expression of the standard of value be uniform in size and form, and possibly scalable to allow fractional values to be established. Think coins here.

Axes, we learn, would have been "traded" and "serve as a social cue" between groups. This is because they "developed as icons and symbol", a part of the argument that, frankly, does not seem to have been entirely clear to the Live Science reporter. We learn that hand axes became more symmetrical over time, more standardized, and then, that some were make individually distinctive by the use of unusual materials, or execution in unusual size. But what this has to do with money is left vague.

Lam's actual argument, presented in her published abstract for this paper, is somewhat more precise. The paper's title makes no reference to "money": called Constructing a Standard Stone Tool and Human Niche, it proposes that making standardized stone tools was transformative of cognition in the ancestral human lineage:

The manufacture of robust, standardized artefacts may have enabled their trade and imbued them, over time, with cultural meaning within hominin social groups. Here, the longevity, ubiquity, durability, and stability in design of Acheulean handaxes is explained by viewing handaxe construction in three temporal phases, co-evolving with the human niche: first, as iconic multipurpose functional tools, fashioned by ancestral hominins; second, as standard indexical commodities exchanged in social relationships, perhaps as a paleocurrency among pre-linguistic hominins; and third, as symbolic of cultural power, carried and exchanged as gifts by modern humans within socially constructed niches, now filled with shared meanings and language.

It is only in the second of her proposed temporal phases of Acheulean handax production that Lam raises the thorny issue of tools as commodities and as "palaeocurrency". Her use of this term is bound to arguments about the emergence of language; stone tools circulated as a kind of pre-linguistic token whose standardization, recognized and affirmed by acceptance, creates spheres of value.

And with this, Lam enters into old debates about money that divided anthropologists and economists. In 1970, economist Jacques Melitz published an article in American Anthropologist, the leading journal of the American Anthropological Association. Coming, as it were, to enemy territory at a time when "substantivist" economic anthropology was vigorously contesting the way economists viewed money and more, Melitz argued that the term "money" should be used only for two things: a "means of payment" and "media of exchange". Specifically, he objected to confusing money with anything "symbolic", writing:

I would argue in regard to the functions of medium of exchange and means of payment that all references to money symbolism can be expunged. It takes some "stuff" to pay a fine or a blood price, or buy a cow. Whatever this stuff may symbolize, its commodity description adequately denotes the thing that performs the function of payment or meets the price.

Lam is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Mexico, which lists her PhD field as Theoretical Chemistry and Physics. She is also listed as a Research Associate at the Fisheries Center of the University of British Columbia, which describes her as conducting "theoretical research in the evolution of human cognition and behaviour", and lists her as an associate as well of that university's Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture.

So, she can be forgiven the assertion, long abandoned in anthropology, that humans are "unique" tool makers. Even Live Science added a link to a list of "10 Animals that Use Tools" to its coverage.

Her use of the term "indexical commodities" for the handaxes she suggests were "palaeocurrency" among members of the human language before the development of spoken language essentially treats exchange not as a thing of "stuff"-- in Jacques Melitz' terms-- but as a thing of meanings. The kind of currency she has in mind is not a medium of exchange-- not coinage-- but a standard of value.

The equilibration of value in social exchanges is probably better thought about from the perspective of gifts, not (just) money. Since her final phase is characterized by the full development of stone handaxes as gifts, it is curious that she wants them to begin as currency. One of the most prominent contexts of stone handaxes in recent history actually happens to be in the Pacific circuits of exchange of valuables that sparked Marcell Mauss's classic book, The Gift. In it, Mauss describes the network of inter-island exchange called kula as

a vast system of services rendered and reciprocated which indeed seems to embrace the whole of Trobriand economic and civil life... the exchange of vaygu'a during the kula forms the framework for a whole series of other exchanges, extremely diverse in scope, ranging from bargaining to remuneration, from solicitation to pure politeness, from out- and- out hospitality to reticence and reserve....all the kula provide the occasion for gimwali, which are commonplace exchanges...The association that is constituted...begins with a first gift...The present is normally something fairly valuable: for example, a large polished stone axe... The importance and nature of these gifts springs from the extraordinary competition that occurs between the potential partners.

What strikes me as problematic about Lam's account is that standardization apparently produces social relations. Trying to model the production of values as emergent properties of the production and exchange of things, giving priority to one part of the equation, in a series of phases forces us to choose what we think is either simplest, or most natural: which came first. Where Mauss's account gives us a rich sense of pragmatic actions embodying values of multiple kinds simultaneously, Lam offers us something perhaps easier for us to imagine, but hard to imagine in practice.

This is not to say that standardization of the forms of Acheulean handaxes might not indicate that the humans who made and used them were arriving at standards-- including standards of value. The indexicality of these objects (presumably indexing to some degree labor, particularly skilled labor) and the ability to vary one attribute to inflect value (unusual material indexing differential distance or differential knowledge, and thus creating difference in a sphere of value) seems perfectly defensible.

But in what sense does that make these things "palaecurrency"? Is the idea that they served to stand for other things in actual exchanges-- my pile of roots is equivalent to one handax, how many fruits of yours equal the same? Or, are they a way to store value-- the equivalent of the romantic notion of money being backed by the gold reserve in Fort Knox? Is the idea we are supposed to have the one that Melitz found to be entirely symbolic, that of record keeping, of accounting: were axes ciphers in calculations of wealth? Or is the intention really, as Live Science seems to have understood, that axes served as the medium that could be given to someone else in return for other things?

It might be time to revisit some basic anthropological discussions. Or even just to look up "money" in a Dictionary of Anthropology like the one edited by Tom Barfield, that warns that

money is a double-edged tool, and the topic has tended to polarize social theorists....People perceive in money both quantitative and qualitative values. Money's value is based on trust... the qualitative values of money and quasi-money may be symbolic, psychological, or aesthetic in nature. Money is made with symbols, and it is a versatile symbol itself. ... It is variously portrayed as a cause and effect of social transformations.

That makes money a pretty troublesome concept to use for an already tricky period in human history. Because we all know, courtesy of Cyndi Lauper, that "It's all in the past now: money changes everything".