We seek to characterize the evolutionary role played by the transactional record that is the foundation of modern accounting. We theorize that systematic recordkeeping crystallizes memory and, along with other institutions (e.g., law, weights, and measures), promotes the trust necessary for large‐scale human cooperation. Our theory yields two predictions: (1) permanent records emerge to supplement memory when complex intertemporal exchange between strangers becomes more common and (2) systematic records and other exchange‐supporting institutions co‐evolve and feed back to increase gains from economic coordination and division of labor. Many aspects of ancient Mesopotamian recordkeeping are consistent with these hypotheses, suggesting that our evolutionary theory is plausible. We outline ways to directly test our predictions with experiments, ethnographies, and agent‐based models, and describe other techniques that can be used to explore the co‐evolution of accounting with the human brain, language, and law.

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