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Vol. XI • 1989

The Origin and Development of Property[1].
Wilhelm Schmidt

1. Passion and Science
Probably no question has been as holly debated by mankind as has the problem of the origin and justification of property. It may well have kept men aroused at all times and it is the cause of most bloody wars and revolutions. In our own time it has acquired a special sharpness since capitalism, which forced the wonderful progress of technology into its service, has created in the modern proletariat a tremendous numerical majority of people for whom the possibility of owning their own property ... was extremely limited ...

The passionate revolt against these consequences was already expressed by the pioneer of the French Revolution of 1789, J. J. Rousseau, who exclaimed in the second part of his Traité sur l'origine de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1757): "The first man who put a fence around a piece of land and put it in his mind to say: this is mine! and who found simpletons who believed him, was the true founder of bourgeois society. How many vices, how many wars, how much murder, misery and grief the person might have prevented who would have torn down the fenceposts, filled in the ditches and cried out to his fellow men: Do not believe this trickster! You are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to you all, the soil to no one." A few decades later one of the forerunners of the proletarian revolution against bourgeois society, Proudhon, elevated this revolt to the paradox: "La propriété, c'est le vol [Property is theft]."

In numerous works science had already taken up positions for or against these opinions as it dealt with the problem of the origin and the justification of property when the young science of ethnology also entered the discussion with Lewis H. Morgan's well-known work Ancient Society (1878). This work seemed to lend full support to the enemies of (private) property. Thus we need not wonder that such a science-minded revolutionary as Frederick Engels proceeded to include this work of science of that period in the armory of the proletarian revolution in his book The Origin of the Family, of Private Property and of the State, Pursuant to Lewis H. Morgan's Investigations (Hottingen-Zurich, 1884). In its innumerable editions the entire proletariat was then provided with this weapon. The spirit of evolutionism which then permeated science assured for this weapon a long-range and dangerous effectiveness, which continues to reach into Soviet Russia to this day, and into its propaganda stirring up nearly all countries of the world.

2. Science and Method
In this passionate atmosphere true science has no easy task as it must preserve the necessary calm and objectivity toward bath sides. This is most easily accomplished by historical research, and while an evolutionistically oriented ethnology remains dangerously beholden to such theories, culture-historical ethnology with its firm, well elaborated methodology can more easily defend itself against such dangers. It does by no means begin with the forms of property themselves but first establishes in a methodological way the ethnological age of the total culture of the peoples whose property conditions it wishes to investigate. By this method the ethnological age of these forms of property is also obtained in a thoroughly objective manner and purely scientific interest. The relative time sequence of the individual forms of property may also be objectively read from the findings, and hence the sequence of their inner developments and their active and passive relations with outside influences. Once the first requirement for an objective establishment of the causal nexus has bean met in this manner, the way has also been opened to a truly scientific history of property.

In this manner I have collected, critically examined and methodically arranged materials about the history of property in primitive nations for a period of almost ten years. The fruit of these investigations was the 1937 publication of the first volume of a larger work, Property at the Oldest Levels of Mankind. This volume presented an introduction to the history of the problem and the nature and functions of property, and then dealt with property in the earliest cultures (Urkulturen), namely, those collecting and hunting cultures which lie before the beginning of the [later] cultures of cattle raising, agriculture, and artisans.... The present article will deal only with the property of the earliest cultures ... This form of property is especially significant because it doubtless stands closest to the origin of property and its first forms....

Let us establish from the start: in the earliest cultures there is no exclusively collective property, nor is there exclusively individual property, but rather both forms of property exist everywhere in clear distinction, with each vested, however, in different objects.

3. Collective Soil Property of the Most Ancient Times
Let us first consider immobile property, property of soil. It can never be individual property in any earliest culture. The title holder of this property is the loose extended family. Less frequently appears a lesser title holder, the individual family, even more rarely a larger one, the regional group as the union of several extended families, and in almost all instances the more recent origin of these forms due to the influence of younger cultures can be shown....

This soil property of the extended family is incomplete in the sense that no one can dispose of it, neither the extended family, even less the individual family, least of all the individual, nor a headman who anyhow does not exist in many tribes and who does not have such authority anywhere. However, this property is defended against others who want to enter it. The notion of territory conquest, however, is unknown at this level of culture, even inconceivable; I found only one single example of this kind in a marginal territory in northern New South Wales. The true, fundamental owner of the soil ... is acknowledged to be the Creator Who has assigned their various territories to the various nations, tribes and groups.

Thus the land is not a fixed abode for the extended family but it is the wide open space which serves it as the basis of production for food which it seeks on its wanderings, the woman looking for edible plants in gathering fruit, leaves, roots, and catching small fish, and the man looking for meat by hunting. Just because it is the family which, as we shall see, gathers the food, prepares it and deals it out, it is plausible that the family is also the title bearer of the land property from which it gains the means for continued sustenance of life, and it is also the original bestower of life. By not disposing of the soil, the family, from which all future mankind is to descend, has the secure foundation of its existence.

Nevertheless this property is not asserted in a rigid, ruthless egoism. We rather find here a softening and ennobling of property shown by permission to such extended families whose own territory does not produce sufficient food to make use of other territories by their respective owners, but always only under certain conditions sharing a part of the booty, bringing gifts, and the like.

The boundaries of individual territories are always laid down exactly but never marked artificially. There are only natural boundary marks: certain trees, hills, rivers, etc.... If there are ethnologists and sociologists who attribute boundary marks to sorcery, this theory is already refuted by conditions in the earliest cultures, nor is it supported by the oldest facts of later cultures.

4. Beginnings of Individual Soil Ownership
Nevertheless the beginning of individual-familial soil ownership is already found in the earliest cultures. Such ownership also shows the marks of fixed property in that it is expressly passed down to individual members of the family by inheritance. Again not the soil itself is directly bequeathed, but rather certain categories of objects which are all somehow related to the soil or directly represent a particular part of the soil ...

Almost everywhere this property is acquired by the acquisition of the first occupant, a man who was the first to discover a valuable and at the same time rare good which, however, is not required for sustaining the life of the community, and therefore in a way permits him individual ownership. He must only inform the community ... and everywhere this information is respected by the other individuals and families.

... The real origin of individual soil ownership begins only later, when in the primary culture circle of agriculture the woman ... has begun to plant, to sow, and to prepare the soil for this. The labor she has thus invested in the soil makes the woman the first individual soil owner, which is the entire basis for matriarchy. On this subject a later article will furnish more details.

5. Individual and Individual Family Ownership of Food
... The title by which such property is acquired is doubtless the work and labor which the individual has spent upon gaining food. But since on the level of gathering food man does not really "produce" the food himself but only finds it, the food is not the "product" of his work. He rather received it from the hand of the Creator Who has created everything and made it available to man. In the great majority of these tribes man acknowledges this supreme right of property of the Creator through the sacrifice of the firstfruits (Primitialopfer), the first share of all food which he offers to the Creator. However, the Creator has imposed altruistic obligations on the property of food He entrusted to man, so that this property must be shared with others, especially those in need of it because of age, sickness and large numbers of children.

6. Individual Property in Tools and Means of Defense
In the earliest culture only movable property consisting of tools and means of defense reaches the highest degree of formal and individual property: the hut, clothing, ornaments, tools and weapons. These are "produced" in their totality by people ... and their quality of being tools and weapons is given them by human work. This is why man feels he is their total owner and disposes of them all the more freely ...

This full (individual) property right not only is not missing in the earliest culture but rather it exists with regard to the number of title bearers to an extent which is not exceeded by any later level of mankind and usually is not equalled. For here all people in the same boundlessness are property owners, men as well as women, adults as well as children, and these property rights are respected by everyone with a conscientiousness and honesty as hardly ever at a later level. If it is true that all property represents reinforcement of the consciousness of one's own self, of one's personality, an extension of the outreach and of the effective power of one's personality into the outer world, then we may judge how greatly personal awareness of one's own self is already developed at this earliest level.

7. Gift-Giving, Lending, Inheritance in the Earliest Time
1. Despite the sharply formed property character of this kind of property the altruistic joy in giving gifts is not absent here either ... Both giving and lending are on this level only done with objects of the kind described in the preceding section....

This joy in giving gifts shows itself especially in mutual friendly visits. Entire families spend days—even weeks—with other families and even remote tribes, bring gifts, are hosted and entertained with pleasures and feasts and return richly endowed with gifts...

2. If at such visits gifts are matched by return gifts, the main goal in doing so is explicitly not an economic one, but rather one of affection, to show love and appreciation to each other. Certainly this gift exchange, especially between two economically different territories, could later become trade by mutual giving, which W. Wundt declares to be the origin of trade in general....

3. The joy in giving gifts is almost everywhere paralleled by a similar ease and acquiescence in loaning objects one does not want to give up once and for all....

4. The extent of that which might be passed on to others by inheritance is rather small in the earliest cultures. Land and soil are not included, nor is the usually easily decaying hut. Clothes and ornaments, weapons and tools are almost entirely excluded ... From all this we see that the concept and the institution of inheritance has only weak if any roots in the earliest culture. Wherever there is inheritance, however, it is not by the tribe but by the family and in it the closest relatives; the extent of the family hardly ever exceeds the loose extended family.

8. Nature and Origin of Property of the Oldest Peoples
Let us now sum up the details and individual forms of property which we found in the peoples and tribes of the earliest culture ... We must first acknowledge the fact, surely astounding to many, that all the essential kinds of property are found already here in clear form, each corresponding to its object in a natural manner. In their totality these property forms are an explicit testimony to the firm existence of the (loose) extended family and the individual family, as well as to the individual's clear awareness of his or her own personality. They all have meaningful support in the respective forms of property to which they hold title.

As many and as varied objects as an individual can already own in the earliest culture, there is one thing he cannot own which the "progress" of later levels of culture could transform into objects of property: other people.... here everyone works only for himself and his family. Thus there is no work for wages, much less the full depersonalization of slavery. Nor do men serve other men as food at this earliest level because cannibalism is entirely unknown here.

...This clearly, firmly and richly developed kind of property in the earliest culture does not consist in greedy grasping and tight clasping of a ruthless and limitless egoism. Instead, an astonishing altruism softens this property through voluntary charity and extensive joy in giving gifts, so that the well-known word of St. John Chrysostom, "Meum et Tuum, frigidam illad verdom'' ["Mine and thine, that is a frigid word"] surely applies least to this oldest culture of mankind. This altruism, open to charity and joyful in giving gifts, may in part rest upon the rich and warm natural affection of the people in the earliest culture, praised by many observers. It certainly does, however, also rest upon the fact that these people do not claim any property absolutely, but rather acknowledge it as vested absolutely only in their Supreme Being, Who as omnipotent Creator has "made" the entire world, the earth, man, and animals and plants as food for man, and Who is therefore by virtue of His work, according to their strongest legal title already on the earliest cultural level, the supreme owner, especially of the earth and the food it produces.... This Creator, they believe, has transferred to them the property of the earth and its products, but He imposed upon this property the double duty of respectful and economical use and altruistic sharing out. These obligations received from the earliest time are already impressed upon their young people in their solemn youth dedication ceremonies....


[1]- Originally published in Scientia (Milano), 1939. Republished in Wepe der Kulturen (Anthropos Institut, Studia Instituti Anthropos, Vol.20, 1964), pp.89-98. Excerpted and translated from the German by Ellen Myers.

"The Origin and Development of Property"
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