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Odd and curious money comes in many forms
By Cindy Brake

Odd and 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 payments.

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 and fiber.

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 Traditional Money.

"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 writes.

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 considered money.

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 Hawaii.

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 writes.

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 Solomon Islands.

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 tribes.

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 feather coils.

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 patterns.

"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 world."

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 shells.

What is money?

The definition of money is open to interpretation.

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 economics."

So, what is curious and odd money? It quite literally could be just about anything, perhaps even the medallic disks that some nations call coins.

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