Gift, redistribution and market. Modes of prehistoric exchange

→ Arne Windler

Since prehistoric times exchange and trade have been important aspects of the social and economic life of human communities. Numerous examples, like the spondylus gaederopus network during the Neolithic, the tin exchange in the European Bronze Age or the Mediterranean imports during the Hallstatt Period, illustrate the variety of prehistoric interaction.

Two models deduced from anthropology are of central importance when prehistoric exchange networks are analyzed: On the one hand the trichotomy of gift exchange, redistribution and market trade developed by Karl Polanyi (1957; 1978) and one the other hand Marshall Sahlins’ (1974) division into generalized, balanced and negative reciprocity.

Especially by adapting Polanyi’s classification, simple evolutional tendencies occur: During the Neolithic of Europe goods shall be transferred by a gift exchange, whereas during the metal ages a developed market shall evolve. But these are only two of several different classifications of exchange. One aim of this study is to analyze different models from sociology, anthropology and economics and test their application concerning prehistoric societies.

Possibilities of transfer are discussed in one case study: the exchange of spondylusgaederopus during the second half of the 6th Millennium BC.

Artefacts made from the musselspondylusgaederopus are used in South- and southeastern Europe around 6000 before Christ and reached to some extent even the European inland. Spondylus artefacts were distributed all around Europe between 5500 and 5000 BC and can be connected with the neolithization of the continent. The mussel can be found from the Aegean Sea to the Harz Mountains and from the Parisian Basin to the Ukraine. Local practices in the use of the Spondylus evolve: E.g. in Central Germany artefacts made from Spondylus were exclusively found in female graves, whereas in Bavaria, France, Bohemia and Moravia shell jewelry are distributed in men as well women graves. The distribution of Spondylus artefacts retreats back to southeastern Europe together with the disappearance of the Linear Pottery culture around 4900 BC. After 4000 BC Spondylus was used rather rarely in Europe and artefacts can only be found at the Aegean coast.

The aim of this study is to investigate the temporal and spatial distribution of Spondylus artefacts and to analyze the social as well as economic modes of exchange.


Figure 1: Bracelets made from Spondylus from the cemetery of Varna (around 4500 BC)

Figure 2: Distribution of Spondylus between the Paleolithic and the Iron Age.


Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Thomas Stöllner (University of Bochum), Priv.-Doz. Dr. Oliver Nakoinz (University of Kiel), Prof. Dr. Tobias Kienlin (University of Cologne)