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Trade And The Development Of Civilization

With trade being such an important concept for anthropologists and other social scientists attempting to understand the historic and contemporary cultures of the world, it is not surprising that trade has been an important concept to scholars attempting to understand the evolution of cultures and, in particular, the development of civilization.

Trade as redistribution.

Elman Service (1962) saw trade as a basic element in the evolution of chiefdoms out of tribal societies. Chiefs, Service argued, functioned as the operators of centralized redistribution networks, which took in surplus goods from all populations in a society and redistributed them back to those populations, but spread them evenly so that no single population lacked goods they needed, and no single population could acquire an ongoing surplus. This system of redistribution only evolved among sedentary agriculturalists, because it was among these societies that redistribution was needed. Redistribution allowed regional fluctuations in agricultural production (due to variation in rainfall, for example) to be evened out. More importantly, however, Service argued that redistribution both required and fostered the centralization of political authority, and thus was essential to the evolution of chiefs. It was only with the creation of a formal position of redistributor—a chief—that the smooth functioning of a system of redistribution could be ensured. And once the position had evolved, chiefs quickly learned to use their authority to provide or withhold goods to increase their authority in other areas of social life.

Trade as legitimation.

But there are problems with Service's ideas. Not all chiefs function as redistributors, and not all societies with chiefs have resource bases that vary significantly. It is clear, however, that trade seems to be important in the evolution of many chiefdoms, and Mary Helms (1979) suggested that one reason might be that trade can serve as a mechanism for legitimating power. Helms studied the late prehistoric and early historic chiefdoms of Panama, where chiefs actively participated in and controlled trade in exotic goods such as gold ornaments, but had little to do with trade in basic, utilitarian goods of daily life. Helms argued that Panamanian chiefs used trade as a symbol of their ties to distant people and places and, through those ties, to exotic and even supernatural knowledge. Trade was not used as a means of controlling resources, but rather, of controlling knowledge and, through that control, of legitimating the chief's authority. The chief was the legitimate leader because, through trade, he had formed social relationships with neighboring and distant chiefs. He also gained knowledge of distant people and things through these relationships, and, in some cases, even knowledge of supernatural powers unknown to the society he governed but well understood by distant people with whom he was in contact through trade.


Immanuel Wallerstein developed world systems theory in the early 1970s as a new way of looking at the rapid expansion of capitalism. Wallerstein posited that in capitalism a clear geographical hierarchy of trade evolved. Europe was the core, the area where raw materials were converted into finished products. The rest of the world was the periphery, the area where raw materials were obtained and finished products consumed. Capitalism expanded rapidly because it needed raw materials to create goods and markets to consume them. Nineteenth-century colonialism was the political actualization of these capitalist needs. However, finished products always cost more than the value of the raw materials needed to make them, so the periphery, in providing raw materials and consuming finished products, was actively exploited by the core, a process world systems theorists came to refer to as "underdevelopment." World systems theory provided social scientists a means to understand why and how the "developing" world was never able to actually "develop" despite many attempts to aid them in doing so—because they were being actively "underdeveloped" by the capitalist core. World systems theory continues to be one of the primary means that anthropologists and other social scientists use to examine and understand trade relations and their effects.

Trade as finance.

One of the key aspects of the evolution of civilization is the creation of surpluses to finance the support of individuals who are removed from production to become political leaders, priests, artisans, soldiers, and the like. Elizabeth Brumfiel and Timothy Earle (1987) suggested that trade, in the form of mobilization of surpluses, is a process through which this key aspect of civilization is played out. They argue that political leaders evolve as individuals who are able to mobilize surpluses in order to finance their own support and, later, support for other political personnel. Over time, mobilization increases, and political leaders are able to finance support for larger numbers of people. Brumfiel and Earle suggest that this form of "staple finance" is often transformed into "wealth finance" as polities become larger and more complex. Political leaders employing wealth finance use trade to mobilize wealth, often in the form of exotic goods from distant locales, to finance support for political personnel. Wealth finance is less cumbersome than staple finance, as bulk goods such as food are not involved, and often provides political leaders with new avenues for social control. For example, complex administrative structures may be needed to maintain access to and control over trade in wealth items, and a market system may be required in order to provide political personnel a means to transform wealth items into staples. In this way, the mobilization of wealth through trade is seen as a driving force in the evolution of civilization.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Toxicology - Toxicology In Practice to TwinsTrade - Approaches To The Study Of Trade, The Formalist/substantivist Debate, Trade And The Development Of Civilization