Odd and curious money comes in many forms
By Cindy Brake
curious money comes in many forms, styles;
Elephant and zebra tails, whale teeth, beads and
stones serve as currency.
Tails when not attached to an elephant or zebra
were once used as money in Africa.
Images courtesy of Charles Opitz. Curious and
odd money includes whale teeth and elephant
tails. Whale teeth represent commitments like
those made with a Western engagement ring
tradition. Tails of giraffes and zebras also
were used in commerce by some communities.
Images courtesy of Charles Opitz. Yap stones
represented wealth and were used for political
Images courtesy of Charles Opitz. One feather
coil could require 300 birds and take three
specialists a year to make. The feather coils,
still in use today symbolically, were used for
bride price, as well as in trade to buy canoes,
pigs, turtles, fish, breadfruit and coconut rope
Images courtesy of Charles Opitz. Beads appear
to have been almost a universal form of trade
throughout the world.
Some may call it odd and curious, but in the
Congo during the 19th century, 600 to 700
elephant tail hairs were worth one slave, writes
Charles J. Opitz in An Ethnographic Study of
"Hair was thought to prevent disease. In Durant
Lopy's book Kingdom of Congo (1881), he
described how natives drive elephants down
narrow trails where the elephant would have
trouble turning around. Then the natives would
creep up behind the elephant, cut off the tail
and run before the elephant could turn around,"
Opitz adds that this practice was before the
natives had guns.
"This proved to be very dangerous," he notes. "A
tail could be taken from a dead elephant, but
they were hard to find."
Corn, coconuts, beads, beetle legs, newspapers
and even bamboo have all served as money in some
cultures, as well as beads, stones, teeth,
feathers and yes, more animal tails. Besides the
elephant, the tails of giraffes and zebras were
Zebra tails were considered "very valuable" in
Africa including in Angola, Congo and Loango
with one tail worth two slaves. East Africa
tribesmen made money by creating bracelets from
giraffe's hair and tails. This type of money was
eventually outlawed by the government in an
attempt to protect giraffes from being killed.
Whale teeth were a form of commerce in Fiji.
According to Opitz, "The tooth of the cachalot,
or sperm whale, was called tambua and was used
as bride price and as a favorite medium of
exchange. When a youth seeks a wife, the request
must be accompanied by the presentation of a
whale's tooth, and its acceptance constitutes a
binding contract of marriage." Opitz likens the
tooth to the engagement ring tradition.
Whale teeth were also traded in the Solomon
Islands and the Yap Islands.
Hard as a rock
The Yap Islands are also known for their stone
money, "one of the most interesting and unusual
kinds of money in the world," according to Opitz.
One of the earliest references to Yap stone
money was in the early 1800s by Otto von
Kotzebue, who was sailing for the Russian czar
to the Carolinas. Yap is located about 450 miles
southwest of Guam and 4,400 miles southwest of
Yap stones are made of a type of calcite called
aragonite that has the hardness of marble.
Interestingly, the island of Yap does not have
any native stone, so all of the stone converted
into money had to be brought from elsewhere.
"Natives thought the stones were of divine
origin. Prior to the traders, a chief would give
permission to some youths to go to Palau to
manufacture and bring back stone money," Opitz
Larger stones were displayed outside a
bachelor's house to show the wealth of the
village. Pieces range from 2 to 3 inches in
diameter to about 12 feet in diameter. The
stones were also used for political payments.
Light as a feather
While the heaviest of odd and curious money
hails from the Pacific Ocean, so too do some of
the lightest forms. Feather coils made from the
red feathers of the small scarlet honey eater
serve as money in the Santa Cruz group of
According to Opitz, only the feathers of the
breast, head and back of the bird are used.
Three specialists work for a year to make one
coil. One coil requires a minimum of 300 birds.
Feather coils have served for bride price, as
well as in trade to buy canoes, pigs, turtles,
fish, sago, breadfruit, and coconut rope and
fiber. Opitz said the feather coil is still used
to some extent for bride price, but is now also
a symbolic item used in the marriage ceremony.
The feathers of other birds were used as money
in other areas of the world. Ostrich feathers in
Timbuktu, Africa, were traded for iron, beads,
cotton, cloth, tobacco rolls and clothing.
Feathers from a variety of birds were used as
money and decoration in Papua New Guinea. Opitz
lists a few examples that include the
long-tailed buzzard, harpy eagle, white
cockatoo, various lories, and Pesquet's parrot.
He adds that preferences varied among the
Feather coil production is controlled by who is
able to make the coils. Only a person whose
father made feather coils is permitted to make
Beads as money
Beads appear to have been almost a universal
form of trade. Opitz offers examples from
Africa, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, North
America, Tibet, Trobriand Islands, Guatemala,
Mexico, New Caledonia, Borneo, Egypt and more.
Examples range from Abo beads to Aen beads.
Abo beads are bauxite beads traded in Africa.
Made from aluminum ore with the reddish color
coming from traces of iron, the beads were worn
in girdles by the women with some women wearing
up to nine strings.
Opitz states that Zen beads or "glass beads were
also used in Nepal." He adds that the Dzi bead
in Tibet and Nepal is still a very important
part of both nations' culture and very valuable
to the average native. While not used in
transactions, the beads are worn with pride by
people who can afford them. A Dzi bead is a dark
brown and white, or black and white, bead of
etched or treated agate with a wide range of
"On Palau Island the Udoud bead is still very
important in the Natives' lives, but are not
used in ordinary transactions. They are used in
marriage and displayed and worn with pride by
the women. The beads are loaned to be worn by
the women," Opitz states. Udoud is the generic
name for bead money, according to Opitz.
Opitz writes that he thinks the most interesting
monetary system is that of Rossel Island. He
considers it "the most complicated system in the
The system is based on beads and certain shells.
The shells have 22 different classes and the
difference in value from one class to another is
not proportional. The beads have 16 different
classes and are not exchangeable with the
What is money?
The definition of money is open to
Opitz writes: "Some people take a very narrow
view of what is money and what is really only a
barter item or just a valuable item. I am more
interested in defining odd and curious money
(primitive money) in terms of collectors of the
subject and consequently what items should be
included in their collections rather than some
abstract monetary theory and how it relates to
So, what is curious and odd money? It quite
literally could be just about anything, perhaps
even the medallic disks that some nations call