Thursday, July 19, 2012
Dentalia--as good as gold
Native people once gathered at trading sites, bringing bartering items from their various regions, including abalone shells, mountain-sheep horns, canoes, slaves, or whale and seal oil.
The dentalia were strung on thin lines of deer sinew; some researchers suggest that a six-foot strand of quality dentalia was worth a slave. The shells were (are) worn as decoration, or used as payment. Wearing a strand meant a man had his money at hand should he decided to barter or gamble.
Oblivious to the worth people may or may not assign to them, dentalia continue their quiet offshore lives. They spend their adulthood burrowed into the sea floor, pointy end up. Each tapered shell contains a mollusk with a foot for digging and a mouth for eating.
Although the people of the Pacific Northwest may now place their collective faith in discs of metal and pieces of paper, it will take hundreds of years longer before modern money outlasts the span of time during which dentalia shells were valuable.