Adam Smith told us that humans have a “certain propensity” to “truck, barter and exchange one thing for another.” A more modern reading of the evidence we have would suggest that it is this propensity which makes us humans. All of which is something of a blow to the localists who insist that we shouldn’t be trying to do this sorta stuff across geography, for it’s the conquering of that very geography which seems to have been one of the earliest forms of that very trade.
OK, sure, we’re talking about fragmentary evidence, as we always are at this sort of distance, but that evidence really is telling us that the myth of the self-sufficient little band of plains apes isn’t really us at all. We’re from the plains apes that ditched that localism early one. Right early on.
The latest findings:
On a grassy African landscape, some of the earliest members of our species, Homo sapiens, engaged in surprisingly sophisticated behaviors — using color pigments, creating advanced tools and trading for resources with other groups of people.
Those findings were reported on Thursday by scientists who examined artifacts dating from 320,000 years ago unearthed in southern Kenya, roughly the same age as the earliest-known Homo sapiens fossils discovered elsewhere in Africa.
That’s you know, pretty early on. About as early as we’ve really got any knowledge of there properly being homo sapiens sapiens really. The Smith part is this:
THIS division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.
And more on those early ancestors:
In addition to the larger axes, smaller, more specialized tools were discovered that may have been crafted for different purposes, potentially even as projectile weapons. What’s particularly interesting about these smaller implements is that they are made of obsidian and volcanic stones which were not naturally occurring in the area. This suggests that the stones were actually traded between ancient peoples living many miles apart.
“This change to a very sophisticated set of behaviors that involved greater mental abilities and more complex social lives may have been the leading edge that distinguished our lineage from other early humans,” Rick Potts of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program explains.
There’re a couple of ways that we can use this propensity to trade as defining us as humans. The first is just simply observational. Every group of humans we can see, anywhen or where, does indeed practice the division of labour at some scale. They thus, necessarily, trade. Even if we look at just the most basic human unit, the family (which we can, as we wish, describe as the nuclear or extended – to choice – family) we find that division and thus that trade. The very description of our ancestors as hunter/gatherers is making that point even if the division was hopelessly patriarchal by modern standards.
Hmm, OK, something we observe all humans as doing, we could and probably should use that as being definitional. Obviously, it’s also true that many other species so divide – lions and lionesses take rather different parts in hunts for example. But scale and granularity also matter, no?
This evidence is telling us something more about it. Right back there at the earliest point we can really say that it’s us we’re seeing evidence of long distance trade. That is, not just within that familial grouping (family, band, tribe, according to our descriptive desire) but across such. Which is the thing which poses a problem for the localists, those today who insist we should only eat local food, trade within our own cities or nations and so on.
For the economics here is really very simple. Once we accept the division of labour and the resultant trade we then need to try and define what’s the optimal grouping that we do this among. There are obvious limits to it. If travel is walking then any trade in a day is going to be across walking distances – there’s reasonable speculation that the pattern of market towns across Britain accords to just this pattern. As, more speculatively, that sausage recipes do, the catchment area of each market town having its own variation. If there’s no common medium of exchange then we’re using barter, a less efficient method than money. And so on – language can be a barrier, fear of the other and so on and on.
But efficiency does keep insisting that once you’ve accepted that basic idea of division and trade then the correct unit to be trading with is everyone. If we accept division and trade in the modern world – which everyone does the argument is only over the unit within which we do it – then the efficient unit is the globe, all 7 billion of us.
Our ancient evidence is, well, telling is too strong but strongly suggesting, that we’re descended from those who first worked this out. We’ve that evidence of trade over 50 mile distances 320k years ago. (Approximately and roughly a week’s travel round trip. Roughly you understand, a human can walk 25 miles a day without too much strain. There’s not really anywhere in this world a week’s round trip travel away today.) And now we can use that efficiency argument in reverse. Resource availability – this was most definitely a Malthusian world – would be the major determinant of population over time and generations. Gaining even just marginal efficiency through trade, say by having better tools from that 50 mile distant rock source, would provide just that efficiency edge. Meaning that we’ve got a decent enough argument that it’s trade that makes us humans.
No, not just in that sense that every group of humans we can see trades. But the other way around too, that it was that trade itself which led to the humans from which we’re descended being successful enough at reproduction for us to be descended from them. The greater efficiency of the traded rocks for tools being just that thing which provided the edge (sorry, again) to perpetuate the population.
Yeah, sure, all most speculative. But the underlying point is still true. We know three things about humans and trade. All observed human societies divide labour and thus trade. We’ve good evidence (not just this here, this is just early evidence) that trade over distance, thus trade outside the hunting band, happened in the earliest human societies we have knowledge of. And we also know that once we’ve accepted this trade idea that the optimal trading group – OK, most efficient – is everyone we can actually possibly trade with. Those are useful enough building blocks for the argument not just that humans have this innate propensity to truck and barter but that the trade itself is what made us, turned us into, humans from plains apes.
The outcome of all of which is bugger the localists and bring on the globalisation, isn’t it?