In this question, I introduced the concept of a fantasy creature that is basically a sentient badger. I haven't yet named these things, so let's just call them badgers, with the understanding that these are Cobaltduckworld's badgers, not Earth's.

A delegation of humans is arriving at the mouth of the badgers' cave system to engage in friendly commerce. The badgers have brought several carts full of mineral ore- lead, iron, tin, silver. There are also some samples of their unique art- figurines carved from tree roots using only their own claws. The humans value the ore- they can refine it and ultimately make jewelry, tools, fine tableware. Likewise, badger art is all the fashion in high society these days.

Of course, the humans could have just dug up the ore themselves, but that would totally enrage the badgers. Instead, the two species mutually agree to a trade deal, because we offer them .... ?

What is it the humans have brought to the negotiations? What wares fill their wagons? What is it that they have that the badgers can't get themselves? What motivates a badger to labor in the mines, then venture forth out of the sett, into the harsh light of the surface, there to engage these foul-smelling hairless apes?

What, in short, is a mustelid's macguffin?

EDIT/BACKGROUND per some commenter's request.

The overall social/ technological development phase of this world is comparable probably to early 1800s Earth. Well beyond medieval, just before steam, definitely not modern. However, no gun powder.

The badgers are reasonably dexterous (as discussed in my earlier question) and do fabricate their own tools. They do not wear clothing. Their preferred foods are readily available to them- grubs, tubers, smaller burrowing creatures (i.e. "My grandmother makes an excellent pocket gopher stew, with carrots, potatoes, and a generous side portion of three-larva salad. Mmmm.....").

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    $\begingroup$ By the way, this site totally needs a macguffin tag! $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Nov 19 '15 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Cobaltduck. I edited the title to try to summarize your question better. If you feel the edit changed your intent, feel free to roll back or edit further, but please try to make the title accurately summarize the specific question you are asking. $\endgroup$ – user Nov 19 '15 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ I love the question, but I did want to point out that the answer to these things is ALWAYS context depedent. It is far more likely that we will offer something specific to that culture than it will be to offer something that is universal to all humans. Thus, more insight into the human groups that wish to engage in trade, and what the Badgers want in the first place (which is kind of open ended... its your story =) ) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 19 '15 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ As answers have come in, I have realized a few potential ideas. For example, maybe there is something they use as medicine, but it doesn't grow in their lands. Maybe they do use sheets and pillows. Maybe they sometimes supplement their diet with exotic fruits. And beer! Of course, beer! I will up-vote you all, and I wish I could accept more than one answer. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Nov 19 '15 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ God these titles in the Hot Network Questions always crack me up $\endgroup$ – IEatBagels Nov 19 '15 at 18:27

14 Answers 14


In short I would say "Think things that only depraved humans and not Holy Badgers would make/invent/create"

Depending on how advanced your human population is, several things you could trade might include:

  • Drugs (Synthesized drugs not discovered by badgers)
  • Technology (Weapons, Farming, Comfort items)
  • Knowledge (Books, Math, Education, Music, More Technology)
  • A percentage of the refined ores
  • Tools to improve labor
  • Unavailable foods and delicacies

If you want a similar real world example, try taking a look at what the explorers and settlers of North America traded with the First Nations. I know it's not exactly the same, but it is a similar concept.

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    $\begingroup$ As I suspect is the case with most questions on this site, the underpinning was "please help me patch this minor plot hole." In many ways, every answer here has helped me do that. In a happy accident, one word in this answer has allowed me to discover and to fill in a significant plot gulley. I can't say more without giving away practically my entire story. So even though neither I nor @BackwardsBear intended the outcome nor could have predicted it, in gratitude I am giving the extra rep of the accepted answer. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Nov 20 '15 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ Great! Glad my answer could help (I think)? Let me know where you are selling/posting the story when you are done, I'd love to read it, it sounds like a very interesting concept! $\endgroup$ – BackwardsBear Nov 20 '15 at 13:38

When I think of badgers, I imagine them not having clothes and living in holes in the ground. Thus, I don't imagine they'll have much desire for clothing or shelter.

That said, they'll probably gladly accept food. Hunting may be fun, but it's a lot easier to get someone else to do it for you, especially if they can cook the meat and generally make it taste a lot better.

Similarly, I'd think alcohol would be very important to badgers. There is a lot of evidence that animals enjoy the effects of inebriation just as much as humans, but they tend to get their fix by eating old fruit. If badgers get access to the good stuff, I think they'll be more than willing to work to keep the taps open.

As for work, humans are probably more capable than badgers at creating tools. Human blacksmiths can create wee pickaxes, while carpenters can manufacture supports for the cave systems. You may think that the badgers can harvest ore with their bare hands, and maybe they can, but I can't think of a single thing humans are capable of doing on their own that someone hasn't invented a tool for.

The general form of this argument is that the badgers provide mostly raw materials, and the humans provide finished goods. This is a very common arrangement even among humans.

  • $\begingroup$ This is pretty much what I had in mind as well. Working in the mines might also be safer than for the badgers to try to procure the items on their own. $\endgroup$ – user Nov 19 '15 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ Drawing direct parallels from historical early 1800s Earth, instead of alcohol one could build a sustainable large scale trade by exporting products like opium in exchange for raw resources. Exploitative but effective. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Nov 19 '15 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Peteris: well, "sustainable" for as long as you're willing to use military force to override the badgers' attempts to ban opium. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 20 '15 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ "When I think of badgers, I imagine them not having clothes" Speak for yourself $\endgroup$ – Pharap Nov 21 '15 at 7:09

Well, ask yourself what humans may have which you can't find in a cave, and what humans may be better at crafting than a badger (aka, anything).

Note: I am assuming that the badgers have become "civilized" and embraced decadent luxuries such as clothing, or at least symbols of status such as capes, hats, etc, that they like to wear jewelry, and decorate their caves with furniture, etc

1. Crafting

Human hands are more dexterous than badger paws. Anything human crafted is likely to be detailed, and finely made. I'm sure the badgers will value that.

2. Weaved fabrics

The badgers probably don't grow cotton, or have herds of sheep, so they would probably value fabrics - especially silks and the such.

3. Shaped metal & jewelry

The badgers MINE ores, but you can't burn fires underground - how would they smelt it? These little guys probably don't have blacksmiths, or if they do, their operation is not going to be as large scale and complex as that of the humans Again, humans will be stronger, and more dexterous, and thus capable of crafting finer things.

I'm sure the badgers would greatly value good mining tools, fine jewelry, etc.

4. Products not available in caves

Humans can fish, obtain pearls, grow herds, etc. There are a very large number of foodstuffs and products which the badgers would not have access to.

A big one is medicine, or various rare herbs, even if only for cooking purposes.

Hope this helps!

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    $\begingroup$ A clarification on #4 -- WOOD. Badgers spend most of their time underground; the closest thing they have to wood down there is roots. If they start digging large/expansive tunnels, they'll need supports. If they're making their own tools, they may desire more comfortable wooden handles for them instead of stone. $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Nov 19 '15 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ Well, assuming their cave is in the middle of wilderness, they may very well be situated in a forest, so all they have to do is "walk outside" and chop a tree down. But it's easier to do that with a steel axe, than with a stone tool. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 19 '15 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ True, but as burrowing creatures, how much time do they want to spend on the surface. Just as (in this theoretical world) we could go digging for ores ourselves but instead choose to trade, they could do the same for wood :) $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Nov 19 '15 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ I would definitely go with fabrics - I can't imagine a badger having any way of producing fabrics, and we excel at it. $\endgroup$ – daboross Nov 20 '15 at 4:58
  • $\begingroup$ As for #3 I would go for some digging tools and nail files and cutters. They would like to not use their claws for digging as claws can break and get infected. If they don't use their claws for digging, they would need to tend to their claws. $\endgroup$ – BentNielsen Nov 20 '15 at 10:35


They do not wear clothing.

While they may not wear clothing as a matter of modesty, they may well still wear a coat on a cold day. Dogs have fur, but they often don't like being outside in the snow. Badgers may well wear shoes and winter clothing to make themselves more comfortable in extreme weather. And if they live in burrows, they may have even more interest in blankets, as fireplaces are harder to build the further you may be below ground. These may be luxuries to them rather than necessities, so they might well buy from more experienced humans rather than bothering to make their own.

You also might consider Barsoomian clothing, i.e. straps with pouches. The need to carry things comes with the tool-using mindset. It is not reliant on hairless skin. This might not help with your trade problem though, as this seems like something that humans would have no need to make. Simpler just to add pockets to clothes. Badgers might buy things like raincoats instead though. Pockets and rain protection at the same time.


Their preferred foods are readily available to them- grubs, tubers, smaller burrowing creatures

We can guess that humans originally had a diet similar to that of apes and monkeys: grubs, fruits, and small climbing creatures. But I doubt that the grubs and small climbing creatures sound terribly appetizing to you. We can eat them (and in remote areas, people still do), but we do not normally find those preferable to farmed food.

Another point regarding this: cats don't eat mouse-flavored cat food. They eat tuna and chicken flavored food. They also like milk and cream, although it is no more natural to adult cats than to humans. Their preferred foods are not those natural to them but superior versions that they only get from humans.

My basic point here is that you shouldn't necessarily use the diet of wild badgers to determine what intelligent badgers might prefer to eat. Many animals prefer human food--they just have no way to make it.

Comparative advantage

It's also worth noting that even if badgers can build something, they may not. Trade occurs when it's easier to do the work you know and trade it for the results of work that you do less well. Note that even if the badgers are better than humans at producing everything that they want, they may still trade if the humans value the badger product enough to make the human product comparatively cheaper. For example, if the ore is only available from the badgers, the humans may be willing to trade a lot for it.

Also look for absolute advantage. For example, humans raise and eat birds. Birds may not like living in burrows. Therefore, badgers may not have their own birds, so they can only get feathers from wild birds. So if badgers find feather pillows and mattresses superior to their natural alternatives, they might be interested in trading for them.

  • $\begingroup$ I have always wondered why there is not mouse flavored cat food? Or rat, or mole, or..... $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Nov 19 '15 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ ...badger, maybe? @cobaltduck $\endgroup$ – Wick Nov 20 '15 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck: I don't think the reason is anything to do with the cats' preference, it's the owners. And the farmers: I wouldn't expect that farming mice for the catfood trade is a better gig than farming chickens for the cat and human food trade. But even if farming mice or rats could be made economical, you'd still have a product that's at least slightly harder to sell to humans than chicken-based catfood. Our cat doesn't obviously care what meat is in the catfood, she's all about the jelly anyway. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 20 '15 at 12:50


Exotic foods in general would probably be attractive to the badgers, as they are unlikely to travel very far from their homes. Truffles are rare, grow only in specific climates and would probably make a familiar (earthy, tuber-like) but much more delicate treat that the badgers just lovvveeee.

Cat food (in modern setting)

The badgers have no idea why humans are feeding this awesome fast-food to their cats, but if they can pay the humans in worthless shiny beads and mirrors for this highly valuable protein-rich superfood, they're not wasting any chances.


Mining tools. The poor animals probably dig with their own paws. Many badgers will die from having their paws destroyed from repeated use.

As a side effect, you might cause a social revolution. Workers will reach older ages, they won't need to overwork children anymore. You can mine a lot more ore with a lot less badgers. The government eventually has to fire lots of badgers. The unemployed badgers make a strike against adoption of new technologies and the firing or miners. Badger society will change over time and it will demand different things in different proportions.

All types of safety equipment for mining. Canaries in cages, for warning about lethal gas in the tunnels. Flammable materials for making torches. Hi-tech lanterns that burn brightly without smoke. Flammable materials for the torches. Wood beams for safer tunnels.

You can trade the finished products (lots of benefits, creates dependency on your supply) or trade the tools for creating the finished products (morally better).

You could trade knowledge, books, etc. Lots of interesting side-effects if you slip a few books on political systems. Religious books could cause unrest and weakening of official religion. Filter heavily the allowed types of books.

By trading certain things and not others, you can cause a revolution, shape it and time it to your convenience. Flooding their market with certain products, strangling the supply of other products, etc.

Trade the wrong things, and they will refuse to trade anymore.

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    $\begingroup$ Um, real world badgers dig all their lives without their "paws [being] destroyed from repeated use"... $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Nov 19 '15 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @DoktorJ real world badgers don't have a boss demanding an aggressive mining schedule. Nor do they do hard rock mining in order to extract ore. $\endgroup$ – Erik Nov 19 '15 at 21:31


You say that "badger art is all the fashion in [human] high society these days." But what about the inverse? Why wouldn't badgers value those strange things that humans are producing? ("You must see the new dinglehopper that Brock bought. It's simply exquisite. Can you believe that those crazy humans are practically give them away for worthless ore?")

You can seen this in human to human trade relations. Take for example the European trade with native Americans. The native Americans were more than willing to give the Europeans furs, food, land, etc. for glass beads. Why? They didn't really need them ... didn't need, yes, didn't want, no. Native Americans already used beads of various sorts in their decorations, but the European beads had a number of benefits. The first was that the native Americans didn't have to go through the laborious process of making the beads themselves. A second is that the glass beads came in a number of interesting colors that the traditional beads couldn't match.

We also see similar things today in the "opposite" direction. There are plenty of Westerners who pay a bunch of money for "indigenous" art. It has no "real" value to them, but they're still willing to pay (quite a lot) of money to have "authentic native art" in their home, for decoration and to impress their neighbors. Even when you can get cheap reproductions which are made in Western factories, people will pay extra to get "authentic" pieces. Meanwhile, those indigenous cultures are purchasing Western books, television programs and movies. Not because they don't have any books/television/movies/entertainment of their own, but because Western culture is fashionable.

So, yes, if your badgers are self-sufficient, live an ascetic lifestyle and have no desires beyond fulfilling basic biological imperatives, then there's nothing they will want to trade for. But that's a pretty thin and unrealistic society. Any time there's room for wants as opposed to just needs, there will be fashion fads and "keeping up with the Joneses" and so on. Any point of difference between the two societies can be turned into a trade situation, especially if you keep it at the "macguffin" level. -- The badgers can trade for what the humans have simply because the badgers don't have it.


Manufactured Goods

If the badgers are trading away raw ore, that means that the raw ore is less valuable to the badgers than other uses for it. In other words, they can't manufacture it into useful items as well as the humans, or they'd be selling finished goods. A quality knife is worth more than just the bare materials, but if I can make a better knife, I'm not going to buy yours unless it's a lot cheaper than mine.

Just as an example from history, look at the British colonial system, and the American trading system in colonial times. The American colonies were seen as a source of raw goods. The British took the raw goods home, and sold part of the finished products back to the Americas. I'm thinking cotton in particular, when Britain could mass produce the fabric and America couldn't, but it was a repeating pattern.


So the humans, who are very good at manufacturing (they've got space travel, so they must be), take the raw materials and make them into things the badgers want. Maybe it's higher quality, longer lasting tools than the badgers make. I can make my own hammer by banging a nail with a rock, but I'd rather go to the store and pay $10 for a nice quality one. Or maybe I've got a knife, but it needs to be sharpened every time I use it, or it tends to rust if I'm not very careful. I'd pay good money for a high carbon steel or stainless steel blade.


Alternately, I could look at the humans weapons: One badger clan has had an on and off feud going with the neighboring clan for a few decades, but they're pretty closely matched, so no one wants to escalate this into a full on fight. But with a few well placed explosives, one clan could bring the other's whole sett down. It would kill a lot of them straight up, and the rest would be easy to pick off as they dug their way out.

Created Markets

You say the badgers don't use clothes, and forage their food. Maybe they just haven't found better solutions yet.

Look at the history of the microwave. They were introduced in the popular market in the 1970s. Before that, no one imagined they needed it. And during the first couple of decades when they were becoming popular, people weren't sure what to do with them. These days, almost every kitchen has one, and some people wouldn't know how to cook without one.

Imagined goods

So imagine what a digging species might need. Maybe shaped metal claw tips would be popular, to let them dig better and faster. Maybe clear goggles to keep dirt out of their eyes. This is all about things they don't have, but could make use of.

New Foods

Finally, maybe the badgers have a sweet tooth, or a protein tooth, or like the convenience of pre-packaged food. In this case, even though the badgers have enough good food, they could easily be tempted into changing their diets. Look at what happened in the US when preserved foods started becoming regularly available in the 1950's. People weren't necessarily unhappy with their diets before that, but now most people eat pre-packaged food every day.

  • $\begingroup$ "If the badgers are trading away raw ore, that means that the raw ore is less valuable to the badgers than other uses for it." Not necessarily: they just have a surplus quantity, well beyond their own needs. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Nov 19 '15 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ What I mean is that if the badgers could make their ore all into digging machines that the humans wanted, they would because it would be more valuable than the raw ore. If the ore wasn't excess, they wouldn't sell it. But if it could be made into excess digging machines, the digging machines would yield a higher profit than the raw ore. Replace digging machine with any other appropriate salable object if you prefer. $\endgroup$ – Karen Nov 19 '15 at 18:22

I would imagine that exotic and specialty hardwoods from outside the Badgers' normal traveling area would be very prized.


In general it is difficult to produce food underground so humans should be able to sell food for a lower cost than what it would take the badgers to make it. One also imagines humans would travel more than badgers and so they might have access to good from remote regions.

What are the relative technology levels and size of civilizations? This is a huge distinction. A larger human civilization would have more specialized craftsmen and so would have access to a wider variety of goods, and obviously the more advanced civilization would sell items like tools and medicine than require more skill to create. These tools could help dig faster or browse the web, depending on the level of technology available.



Badgers live underground most of the time, but they are not obligate cave-dwellers, and they have a well-developed sense of vision.

For pre-electrical civilisations, tunnel lighting is extremely hazardous due to the risk of flames igniting gases underground, causing tunnel explosions. Humans have access to low-level lighting technologies (such as tritium radioluminescence and low-power LEDs) which can last for very long times and do not ignite gases underground. This will greatly aid the badgers at mining.

Relatively poor ideas:

Food and drugs - Animals that evolved on another planet are likely to have completely incompatible biochemistry, to the point that their food and drugs would not work on each other.

  • $\begingroup$ We can provide food suitable for almost any species. While we don't generally intentionally feed badgers, there's no real stretch to imagine that we could, if we wanted to, provide food items which are suitable for them. Being able to communicate with them would also alleviate many of the problems, including allowing them to tell us directly which food items they prefer and why. Interspecies medicine may or may not be practical at the level of technology given by the OP. $\endgroup$ – user Nov 20 '15 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ I think they're fantasy badgers rather than space-badgers, so the gap is narrower than "completely incompatible biochemistry". $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 20 '15 at 12:58

Well, one possible answer is part of your question:

Of course, the humans could have just dug up the ore themselves, but that would totally enrage the badgers

i.e. the badgers give ore etc just to keep humans from digging it up themselves. maybe they believe that only badgers should have the privilege of mining or that the ground is sacred. the deal could also include protection from other nations or having humans handle problems with the surface (e.g. a flood that's leaking into the ground).

a similar concept has been explored in one episode of stargate; the native population of the planet (pretty similar to native american trives) agreed to provide naquadah (an ore) using their methods if the earthlings stopped using explosives to mine it.


Start with a quick definition from the web of things badgers like to eat..

Badgers are omnivorous, which means they will eat almost anything edible. The >bulk of their diet is made up of earthworms (generally about 80%), but they >will also eat small rodents, frogs and slugs, fruit, nuts, wheat, sweet corn >and grubs.

Now several of those humans grow and badgers cant' reach...

Now humans can trade those, or trade labor for those, or better yet enable the badgers to grow them themselves... dwarf Fruit tree stock, portable rolling scaffolds to allow badgers to pick the fruit, fruit pickers on the end of poles... things that allow badgers to do more...

Then foods produced with same, bottled fruit juices, apple pies, sweet cornbread covered in maple syrup and fresh butter.. waffles...

spices, condiments, flavorings where does Grandma Badger get the mayo for her famous grub salad I ask you?

also, since I suspect a badger might like a nice fresh fish, there is all that lovely fishing poles lures etc... Badgers might even prefer fly fishing, because they keep nibbling on the can's of worms for bobber fishing...

a lot of material there for some lovely personality for the race of badgers...

also blankets, rugs, tobacco (what badger doesn't' like a nice pipe in the evening"

Then comfort items, blankets rungs, candles , books, pillows, cast iron stoves, etc.(what badger doesn't love a nice fluffy down pillow!)

hopefully that sparked some images in you head, it certainly did mine..


Well, they could probably use some good dentists.

I am assuming their teeth do not keep growing as rodents' do. This seems to be the case for terrestrial badgers, as far as I can tell.

They could use other medical services too; but I'm thinking dentistry in particular because the badgers would need it, it might be easier, and it makes direct use of some of the ores for fillings and artificial teeth.

The humans would need to first figure out what works as a safe and effective local anesthetic, which could be non-trivial.


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