Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dentalia--as good as gold

How times change... for an estimated 2500 years, these dentalia shells were the gold standard along the Pacific Coast. The small mollusks spend their lives buried in offshore sediment, where the Nootka (from what is now Vancouver Island) sought them out.

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.


  1. Interesting! I read once that dentalia were traded so extensively they ended up in tribes that lived far inland. I wonder what it was about these that made them so fascinating and valuable to so many people?

  2. I searched a bit and it appears that early North Americans used shells quite extensively for money. I  guess it must have been run on the honor system because there were always plenty to dig up.  The early South Americans did not use shells, they used items with intrinsic values or of commercial use, food commodities, chocolate beans were popular, and even gold dust.

  3. I haven't traded my shells and treasures from the sea, but I am in wonder at the gifts washed onto the shore.  I can understand why the natives found them  trade worthy. 
    Having not done any research on them, was the mollusk eaten first and the shell dried?  Was there a time of extinction or over harvesting?

  4. The mollusks are so small I doubt that they were eaten--but they might have been! No over-harvesting that I'm aware of. Apparently there are more populations of them than the collectors were aware of--they weren't that easy to spot in the muck, so as I understand it, the tribes that had certain collecting areas were fortunate.

  5. I think there were only certain areas that were known to have the shells (see my message above to Ruth). I wonder if there were other shells that were deemed as valuable?

  6. I think it was because they were used for ornamentation--also why the glass beads traders brought were so valuable.