[#][F] Holden - 1/22/2017
The West and its cowries are a good case to look at, because a lot of the West-- the majority of the West, really-- consists of tiny little islands populated by fewer than two thousand souls in total. Often way, way fewer. Let's take the isle of Alabaster* as an example. It's a tiny little mountain poking out of the sea that has been settled since at least sometime in the Shogunate era, and is parked on a trade route so it sees ships pulling into its one harbor semi-regularly to take on water and anti-scorbutic fruits or to ride out storms. As a result the island's single town (also called Alabaster) has all kinds of loose currency rattling around in it thanks to simple trade and sailors looking to gamble, whore, drink, or buy a monkey to bring back to their ship, because that is the kind of thing sailors do (especially after the drinking part).

Moving away from the town, there's a temple compound on the slopes of the mountain. This temple, Hanno Daira, is consecrated to the ancestor cult, and, unusually for the West, acts as a graveyard. The dead of Alabaster are hauled up the mountain and given into the care of the half-dozen monks who tend the grounds for interment and ongoing propitiation with prayers and burned incense and whatnot; or the monks are commissioned to create memorial markers for those lost at sea. Sometimes ships will pull into port and also commission for their dead to be interred at Hanno Daira as well.

The cost of such a burial is one cowrie shell for incense and ritual, or three if there's to be actual interment and upkeep of a grave. Holy shit, that's a lot. How could poor tropical island farmers and artisans afford such a thing?

Well, the answer is that no local resident of Alabaster would ever dream of paying money to the temple. Instead, periodically, those with folks buried up there will head up the mountain with a couple of goats, or a wheel of cheese that they made; or a carpenter will go up and see to the temple roofs, or, ha ha, foolishly, it turns out we brewed too much beer for the festival, and so here's our five excess barrels, you guys take 'em, we TOTALLY can't drink this much. It's not a barter exchange because the goal is not to ever square up accounts. If someone were to simply pay the temple the value of the services rendered, that would cancel the ongoing relationship between the temple and that member of the community-- it would say "okay, we're quits now." That is not how a community acts or behaves. The constant ebb and flow of debt ties the place together.

The guy who brews beer for the festivals, likewise, I can assure you has never been paid for doing so. But he's also never paid anyone else on Alabaster for shoes, chickens, hats, fish, or help putting his house back up after a hurricane knocked it down. Within the closed cycle of the community, there's no barter-- there's just the symbiosis of communal living, enforced by the simple mechanism that anybody who starts taking advantage of the system is going to be snubbed and left out of it. Money? Money is for dealing with strangers, sailors, outsiders. What do you need (or want) with money to deal with your neighbor?

The West provides good "purist" case studies because its communities are so cleanly separated geographically, but this is the general pattern you see across much of Creation when you're dealing with the issue of "these currency values are way too high for people to use to buy shoes or a papaya, what the hell." The answer is, generally, either that they don't use money at all to obtain those things, or they're strangers and so, yes, they either barter work for those things, add them to an ongoing line of established credit (the Guild favors this method since the entire organization can act as a single debtor in this fashion), or they get overcharged to a hysterical degree, because there are very few places that have sufficient "urban anonymity" to need the concept of small change. Nexus and Chiaroscuro are two examples.

*Alabaster shows up briefly in a story that you will hopefully get to read in the next year or so, if I ever manage to scrape together the time to finish it.