Then again, it’s one thing to keep a community alive and well when everyone’s camping in a forest and they’ve all opted in to that vision. It’s quite another to imagine a gift economy enabling humans to build skyscrapers, invent iPhones, put air conditioners in every house, and explore space. (The same goes for collecting taxes and running large businesses.) Not that it’s an all-or-nothing situation: We already have gift economies among friends and family. Perhaps expanding that within small communities is possible; it’s certainly desirable.
Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.
When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.
And that means everything from tuna to stamps to cigarettes has its own unique value in a trade and barter market. — Alexandra Cardinale, Vox, "Why ramen is so valuable in prison," 14 Nov. 2018 European officials were also looking at a barter system that would allow Iran to sell oil, for example to China, and use the proceeds from that sale to purchase goods or technology from Europe. — Laurence Norman, WSJ, "Europe’s Payment Channel to Salvage Iran Deal Faces Limits," 25 Sep. 2018 With unemployment around 9 percent and consumer prices surging, some Argentines are again turning to barter clubs, which first emerged during the collapse nearly two decades ago. — Almudena Calatrava, Fox News, "Argentines seek soup kitchens, barter markets amid crisis," 10 Sep. 2018 This particular search insired Gellar and Laibow to hop on the phone and barter. — Colleen Leahey Mckeegan, Marie Claire, "Sarah Michelle Gellar's Second Act? Disrupting the Food Industry," 18 Apr. 2017 Choco Pies became so prevalent for sale or barter on the streets that North Korea reportedly banned their import to Kaesong in 2014. — Brian Murphy, Washington Post, "The Choco Pie dividend: South Korean firms are drooling at the prospect of business in the North," 17 June 2018 In 1996, amid crippling famine, Ji tried to steal a few pieces of coal from a rail yard to barter for food. — Brian Murphy, BostonGlobe.com, "Could these outspoken North Korean defectors return home?," 11 June 2018 In 1996, amid crippling famine, Ji tried to steal a few pieces of coal from a rail yard to barter for food. — Brian Murphy, BostonGlobe.com, "Could these outspoken North Korean defectors return home?," 11 June 2018 Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing. — Joshua Rapp Learn, Science | AAAS, "The Maya civilization used chocolate as money," 27 June 2018
“Economic theory has always got to be historically bounded,” Beggs says. “I think it’s a mistake to think you’ll find the workings of modern money by going back to the origins of money.” He does point out that, while barter may not have been widespread, it’s possible that it happened somewhere and led to money, just given how much is unknown about such a large period of time.
No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.