Rio History: The Old Shell Game


Special to the PRESS

We have all experienced the irrational feeling of great wealth that comes over us as we walk along the beach collecting shells. Yet, we seldom give any consideration as to what significance shells had to earlier cultures.

Seashells are treasures and from the earliest times, people all over the world have valued them for their beauty and usefulness. Shells were a great source of food, dye, ornaments and jewels. They have been used as cups, bowls, kettles, horns, sacred objects and of course, money.
The oldest recorded use of shell-money goes to the early Chinese, whose ancestors first used shells as money around the end of the late Neolithic Age. Shells, which were not only durable, but easy to carry and count, became an important medium of exchange in early Chinese culture. A cluster of 10 shells equaled one peng, the commonly held standard unit.
By the end of the Shang Dynasty, it became increasingly difficult for northerners in China to find enough shells to carry on trade with the south, so they used other materials like pottery, stone, bone, jade, bronze and gold to make shell shaped money. The minting of shell-shaped bronze coins was a great leap in the evolution of Chinese currency.
Cowries, a brightly colored shell exported from the Maldives to the Mediterranean by Arab traders, were used as money in West Africa to purchase slaves for export to the New World. They became the regular currency for a time in West Africa, but suffered a serious devaluation by the importation of thousands of tons of the cheaper Zanzibar cowries. Eventually, the shell money was replaced by low-value coins. For a time, cowries disappeared almost totally, coming back into circulation briefly during the great depression of the 1930s when cash was in short supply. They are still occasionally used in remote jungle markets.
The traditional shell money of the currency of the Pacific Islands consists of beautiful strings of painstakingly carved discs of shell strung together to make “tafuliae.”
Each tafuliae has 10 strings of colored shells and is about three feet long. Traditionally, shell money was used to pay for such things as a dowry for a bride, land, pigs, and canoes or as compensation for insult or injury.
Fifty strings was the average price a man gave to a bride’s family before he could take a wife. Often times, the prospective groom would place himself in long term debt to do so. When missionaries first came to the islands, they were alarmed at the situation and tried to impose a limit of just five strings for a wife. Today, shell money is still used in isolated parts of the Pacific Rim for certain ceremonial payments or to barter for food. It is also an integral part of the culture and history of the islands, valued as much for its connection to the traditional way of life as for its monetary value.
Of course, here on South Padre Island, we never leave home without it!

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