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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Why Do We Give Gifts? An Anthropologist Explores This Ancient Human Practice

Gifts are usually exchanged mutually.

Have you prepared your holiday gifts yet? If you are like me, you might be procrastinating until the last moment. But no matter if you have all your gifts ready or you will shop on Christmas Eve, giving gifts is a strange but essential part of being human.

While working on my new book, “So Much Stuff,” on how humans have come to rely on tools and technology over the last 3 million years, I became curious about the reason for giving things away. Why would people willingly give up something valuable or useful when they could keep it for themselves?

As an anthropologist, this is a very powerful question for me because giving gifts probably has ancient origins. And gifts can be seen in every culture in the world.

So, what is the reason for the gift?

Gifts have many functions. Some psychologists have noticed a “warm glow” – a natural joy – that comes with giving presents. Theologians have said that gifting is a way to show moral values, such as love, kindness, and gratitude, in Catholicism, Buddhism, and Islam. And philosophers from Seneca to Friedrich Nietzsche thought that gifting was the best example of selflessness. It is no surprise that gifts are a main part of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and other winter holidays – and that some people might even think of Black Friday, the start of the year-end shopping season, as a holiday itself.

But of all the reasons why people give gifts, the one I find most convincing was given in 1925 by a French anthropologist named Marcel Mauss.

ALSO READ: Some Christmas Desserts Are Not As Bad As You Think

Giving, receiving, returning Like many anthropologists, Mauss was confused by societies where gifts were generously given away.

For example, along the northwest coast of Canada and the United States, Indigenous peoples do potlatch ceremonies. In these long feasts, hosts give away huge amounts of property. Think of a famous potlatch in 1921, done by a clan leader of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation in Canada who gave community members 400 sacks of flour, piles of blankets, sewing machines, furniture, canoes, gas-powered boats, and even pool tables.

In a well-known essay called “The Gift,” first published almost 100 years ago, Mauss sees potlatches as an extreme kind of gifting. But, he suggests this behavior is totally normal in almost every human society: We give things away even when keeping them for ourselves would seem to make more economic and evolutionary sense.

Mauss saw that gifts create three different but connected actions. Gifts are given, received, and returned.

The first act of giving shows the virtues of the gift giver. They show their generosity, kindness, and honor.

The act of receiving the gift, in turn, shows a person’s readiness to be honored. This is a way for the receiver to show their own generosity, that they are happy to take what was given to them.

The third part of gift giving is returning, giving back what was first given. Basically, the person who received the gift is now expected – clearly or not – to give a gift back to the first giver.

But then, of course, once the first person gets something back, they have to give another gift to the person who got the first gift. In this way, gifting becomes a never-ending cycle of giving and receiving, giving and receiving.

This last step – returning – is what makes gifts special. Unlike buying something at a store, where the exchange ends when money is traded for goods, giving gifts creates and maintains relations.


(1) Potlatch | Definition, Ceremony, & Facts | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/potlatch.

(2) Potlatch – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch.

(3) What is a potlatch ceremony? – Sage-Answer. https://sage-answer.com/what-is-a-potlatch-ceremony/.

(4) Potlatch Ceremonies and the Repatriation of Potlatch Regalia. https://pages.vassar.edu/theirsorours/2015/02/17/potlatch-ceremonies-and-the-repatriation-of-potlatch-regalia/.

(5) Marcel Mauss – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Mauss.

(6) Marcel Mauss | French Anthropologist, Sociologist & Durkheim’s Student …. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marcel-Mauss.

(7) Marcel Mauss – New World Encyclopedia. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Marcel_Mauss.

(8) Marcel Mauss – Wikipedie. https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Mauss.

(9) en.wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Mauss.


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I’m Olafare Michael Oluwabukola, a young enthusiast with an insatiable curiosity for the mysteries of science and technology. As a passionate explorer of knowledge, I envisioned a platform that could not only keep us all informed about the latest breakthroughs but also inspire us to marvel at the wonders that surround us.
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