The Archaeology of Trading Systems, Part 1: Towards a New Trade Synthesis

Research paper by Rahul Oka, Chapurukha M. Kusimba

Indexed on: 09 Apr '08Published on: 09 Apr '08Published in: Journal of Archaeological Research


After almost three centuries of investigations into the question of what it means to be human and the historical processes of becoming human, archaeologists have amassed a huge volume of data on prehistoric human interactions. One of the largest data sets available is on the global distribution and exchange of materials and commodities. What still remains insufficiently understood is the precise nature of these interactions and their role in shaping the diverse cultures that make up the human family as we know it. A plethora of theoretical models combined with a multitude of methodological approaches exist to explain one important aspect of human interaction—trade—and its role and place in shaping humanity. We argue that trade parallels political, religious, and social processes as one of the most significant factors to have affected our evolution. Here we review published literature on archaeological approaches to trade, including the primitivist-modernist and substantivist-formalist-Marxist debates. We also discuss economic, historical, and ethnographic research that directly addresses the role of traders and trade in both past and contemporary societies. In keeping with the complexities of interaction between trade and other aspects of human behavior, we suggest moving away from the either/or perspective or strong identification with any particular paradigm and suggest a return to the middle through a combinational approach to the study of trade in past societies.