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Informal institutions are the voluntary social arrangements established between households that are used to solve problems that they cannot resolve on their own. Examples from seven ancient and premodern societies are used to illustrate the operation of informal institutions to mobilize labor, establish and maintain interhousehold social networks, obtain spouses, construct intergroup trade networks, and supply emergency support to avoid household failure.
Many past institutions were supported by forms of direct production, that is, by producing the resources that they required, instead of drawing resources from the individuals they were intended to serve. The way that systems of direct production were structured varied from society to society. Examples for direct production are examined from Sumeria, China, the Inka, Aztec Mexico, medieval Europe, Persia, and the 19th-century religious community of Zoar, Ohio.
Merchants were an important feature of the ancient commercial landscape. This chapter examines the merchant’s dilemma, the conditions that gave rise to their appearance, and the way that merchants operated in the ancient world. Structures of operation discussed include commenda partnerships, diaspora communities, and the role merchants played in the development of the putting-out system of managed production. Examples discussed include tribal merchants in New Guinea and South India as well as merchants in the state-level societies of Bronze Age Assur and Aztec Mexico.
Marketplaces were the lifeblood of household provisioning and occurred in many state and stateless societies throughout the ancient and premodern past. This chapter examines the nature of market exchange, the different types of marketplaces documented in societies of different scale, and the factors involved in their origin. Case studies are discussed from multiple state and stateless societies around the world.
This chapter introduces an analytical framework suitable for studying ancient and premodern economies in a comparative perspective. It defines the economy in objective terms, discusses difficulties that must be addressed in developing a comparative understanding of ancient economies, and summarizes the general organization of the volume.
This chapter examines four forces that fostered the development of centralized leadership in early complex societies: the development of resource-holding groups, the intensification of production, the need for mutual protection, and the necessity of regulating interaction with neighboring groups. The palace was an important institution in many early societies, and the Bronze Age kingdoms of Old Kingdom Egypt and Canaanite Ugarit are examined for how they were organized.
Institutions were also financed through economic transfers that drew resources from the individuals that institutions were intended to serve. Two different types of transfers are discussed: euergetistic, or voluntary, contributions made by wealthy patrons in Greco-Roman societies, and involuntary forms of taxation found in many ancient societies. The chapter also discusses forms of tax collection and the use of rents in order to fund institutions.
Households were dynamic economic units organized for their collective well-being. The nature of this dynamic organization is discussed and illustrated using information on household diversification in 16th-century Central Mexico and the role of Indian households in trans-Asian textile exchange. Finally, the house model of society is discussed as a template for organizing formal institutions in early complex societies.
This final chapter provides a summary overview of the main topics raised in the volume. It reiterates that economic plasticity is a fundamental feature of both past and present economies and that economic structure is an important facet that needs more concerted investigation and effort to understand.
Noninstitutional craft production was the foundation of the ancient commercial economy. This chapter discusses the origin of craft production, and how artisans engaged in craft production and overcame the risks and uncertainties associated with it. Differences in the scale and organization of craft production are examined along with how forms of distribution affected the development of full- and part-time craft production.