father's day gifts father's day gifts Whole economies have been based on gift-giving for a long time. (Photo: Andresr/Shutterstock)

Why people have been giving gifts for thousands of years

You’d be surprised to know the practical origin of exchanging presents.

With the holiday season in full swing, gifts take center stage. But that's nothing new ... because, as it turns out, giving gifts is pretty well embedded in our natures.

Dr. Hadas Weiss, an Israeli anthropologist at Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, has found that people who give gifts want to do more than be nice; they want to help society run smoothly.

"They want their activities to constitute a society wherein everyone helps everyone else in reciprocal fashion, to everyone's ultimate benefit," Weiss told From The Grapevine.

And that's nothing new. In the past, gift-giving was more than just a nice thing to do: it was an integral foundation of society. For instance, everyone knows that before people invented money, they bartered. One person might trade Israeli couscous for, say, her neighbor's freshly baked bread. Right?

Well ... maybe not, as it turns out. Many anthropologists who study cultures without money find that older cultures didn't have barter systems at all. "There is, in fact, no known example of a human society whose economy is based on barter of the 'I’ll give you 10 chickens for that cow' variety," writes American anthropologist David Graeber in his book "Debt: The First Five Thousand Years."

So what took the place of these "Settlers of Catan"-style trades? You guessed it: gifts.

"Most economies that don’t employ money – or anything that we’d identify as money, anyway – operate quite differently," Graeber continued. "They are, as French anthropologist Marcel Mauss famously put it, ‘gift economies’ where transactions are either based on principles of open-handed generosity, or, when calculation does take place, most often descend into competitions over who can give the most away."

Competitions based on giving? The idea sounds a little strange, until you think about that time when you and your brother both insisted on paying for dinner, or when you and a friend tried to outdo each other by getting the best wedding gift for your recently engaged friend.

settlers of catanNext time you play Settlers of Catan, instead of trying to get someone to trade their precious wheat for your oh-too-common ore, just ask for some. (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube)

It's a little harder to imagine how that would work on a larger scale, but it's pretty much the same concept. Basically, if you wanted something of your neighbor's, you'd ask her for it. She'd give it to you, assuming that you'd pay her back with something she needed later – be it another item or a set of hands to help build a house.

It makes sense, if you think about it. Gift-giving is flexible. You don't need a specific number or type of items to give and receive. Plus, it's kind of lovely, right? It makes people dependent on each other in a pretty community-friendly way, and it's built on trust.

So next time you wrap presents, know that you're participating in a tradition older than the money it took to buy them.

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