The history of gifts

Surely you have thought hundreds of times “why do I have to give something?”, But perhaps you have never had these other reflections: since when do we give gifts? How many years have humans been giving things away? In short, how did all this start?

It is hard to imagine, but some economic theories defend the gift as the basis of the first signs of social cohesion. It is the so-called “economy of the gift”, defended by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who explains that the idea of barter was not in many primitive societies (barter as an exchange of material objects of the same value), but the gift was. The motivations for these gifts were of course interest, but in many cases they were neither material objects nor material favours. “They exchanged … kindnesses, feasts, rites, military services, women, children, dances.” In any case, Mauss (and other scholars, such as David Graeber) argue that these practices of exchange greatly favoured social cohesion and belonging to the group, and thus place them as one of the detonators of social organization in the early ages.

In Babylon, gifts took on a new meaning, especially when Egypt began to constitute itself as a new pole of power. We can find some examples of exchange of wealth as a mechanism to facilitate diplomatic relations, even when the monetary economy is still being forged. And soon, that same practice was transferred to private interests, and the rulers and pharaohs began to receive objects in exchange for political favours.


But there were also many villages where the gift was not born of material interest. Some primitive societies gave away to obtain spiritual benefits, to satisfy the Gods or to obtain the favour of the forces of nature. It was the practice that would eventually led to sacrifices. Truly amazing!

In ancient Greece and Rome, gifts were a mixture of all these practices: Diplomatic gifts were exchanged between kings and rulers, gifts to integrate, pure and hard blackmail, ritual gifts (and sacrifices too!), And this is how we find some of the practices that have survived up to now, such as giving presents on special dates. In the year 150 BC, when a new Roman calendar was created beginning on January 1st, that was chosen for gifts, usually small brass coins.

In the Saturnalia (the Roman holiday that was celebrated in December and that turned into Christmas) the gifts were also common on that day. In short, as we see, the important thing about these dates are not gifts but the intention behind them.


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