Silent trade with outsiders: Hunter-gatherers' perspectives

James Woodburn


This article, an unpublished essay delivered at the Fifth International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies, Darwin, Australia in 1988, focuses on the mystery of what has been known as “silent trade”—the direct exchange of goods conducted between groups with no face-to-face interaction or communication. Given that the instances of this phenomenon between nomadic hunter-gatherers and pastoral peoples, which emphasize a regularity of status inequality between participants, cannot be explained as literary borrowings from Herodotus and others, this article uses comparative material from the historical and ethnographic record to test three hypotheses: (1) silent trade is an early academic myth deriving from the view, especially characteristic of the nineteenth century, that “civilization” must have evolved stage by stage from some type of society representing an antithesis to “civilization”; (2) silent trade is a myth propagated by the neighbors expressing the social distance they perceive between themselves and the hunter-gatherers; and (3) silent trade is a real phenomenon to be understood in terms of the special nature of the political and other ties associated with the encapsulation (enclavement) of such hunter-gatherers by their neighbors.


sharing, exchange, silent trade, strangers, outsiders, hunter-gatherers, economic anthropology

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.030