Object: Shell money

New Hebrides: Oceania
Date Unknown
Materials: Limpet shells, grass fiber

Shell money is commonly used in the Oceanic region, particularly in Melanesia and the Solomon Islands. It’s production involves diving for seashells, filing them down to the correct size and shape, drilling a hole in the center, and finally stringing them on fibers to create loops of shell money. Long strings of this money are called fathoms, and objects are “purchased” by a certain number of fathoms, depending on what the item is, but always rounded to units of ten (20 fathoms, 30 fathoms, etc.).

This money is used to pay for necessities such as marriage and bride wealth, pigs, and to sponsor feasts and ceremonies with the intention of doctoring diseases, settling disputes, sacrificing to the deceased and publicly expressing alliances. The amount paid is dependent on who is involved in the transaction, their relationship to each other, and the overall value of the goods or services being exchanged.

The Melanesian form of money has often been referred to not as “real money”, but rather a type of substitute for currency. This is due to its different uses and societal obligations. In capitalist societies, money is completely detached and separate from interpersonal relationships, giving economic transactions no social implications. There are certain criteria for what distinguishes money from other forms of exchange. It has defined values, can be divided and is used as a medium of exchange for goods and services. Melanesian money is more intertwined in the society as a socio-political exchange, rather than just simply a market exchange. Shell money has intrinsic character and prestige that creates and builds relationships, which is very different from a market economy where money is detached and impersonal.

Today, this type of economic system is accepted as “real” money, and recognizes the fact that currency cannot be analyzed based on Western and capitalist standards. Rather, since these shells are being used as a medium of exchange, which is the primary criteria for defining money, it is now widely acknowledged that this system is a legitimate economy, trading and purchasing things beyond just commodities and commercial goods.

[Kristina Sokolowsky]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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