Chumash Indians Were Using Shell Bead Money 2,000 Years Ago

by johnsmith

The Chumash Indians, hunter-gatherers centered on the south-central coast of Santa Barbara, were using highly worked shells as currency as early as 2,000 years ago, about 1,000 years earlier than archaeologists thought.

Chumash cupped beads from purple dwarf olive sea snails (Olivella biplicata). Image credit: Lynn Gamble / SBMNH Collection.

Chumash cupped beads from purple dwarf olive sea snails (Olivella biplicata). Image credit: Lynn Gamble / SBMNH Collection.

The Chumash Indians produced shell beads for thousands of years in the Santa Barbara Channel region, with special bead-manufacturing sites well-documented.

Archaeologists specializing in this region have suggested that shell bead money was initially used about 800 years ago.

Professor Lynn Gamble from the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, proposes that the use of shell money started about 1,000 years earlier than previously thought in California, dating back to about 2,000 years ago.

“If the Chumash were using beads as money 2,000 years ago, this changes our thinking of hunter-gatherers and sociopolitical and economic complexity,” she said.

“This may be the first example of the use of money anywhere in the Americas at this time.”

Professor Gamble argues that archaeologists should use four criteria in assessing whether beads were used for currency versus adornment: (i) shell beads used as currency should be more labor-intensive than those for decorative purposes; (ii) highly standardized beads are likely currency; (iii) bigger, eye-catching beads were more likely used as decoration; and (iv) currency beads are widely distributed.

“I then compared the shell beads that had been accepted as a money bead for over 40 years by California archaeologists to another type that was widely distributed,” she said.

“For example, tens of thousands were found with just one individual up in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

“This bead type, known as a saucer bead, was produced south of Point Conception and probably on the northern Channel Islands, according to multiple sources of data, at least most, if not all of them.”

“These earlier beads were just as standardized, if not more so, than those that came 1,000 years later.”

“They also were traded throughout California and beyond. Through sleuthing, measurements and comparison of standardizations among the different bead types, it became clear that these were probably money beads and occurred much earlier than we previously thought.”

“We know that right around early European contact the California Indians were trading for many types of goods, including perishable foods,” Professor Gamble said.

“The use of shell beads no doubt greatly facilitated this wide network of exchange.”

The study was published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.


Lynn H. Gamble et al. 2020. The origin and use of shell bead money in California. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 60: 101237; doi: 10.1016/j.jaa.2020.101237

Source link:

Related Posts

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More