A very long time ago I was a touroperator (in the 1990s) and I was invited by an airline to check the touristic possibilities in Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya. Both countries are situated on one island in the Indonesian archipelago, where the Dutch, the British and the Australians has their influences. Until the 1960s the people of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya used big shells as money and pieces of jewelry.

In an earlier published blog I already told you about the history of jewelry and how natural things, like shells, feathers or beads, were items to decorate the body with. That expressed the status of the bearer or the ethnic group he or she belonged to. Or the achievements of the wearers.

1. kaart van Papua New Guinea / Irian Jaya 2. Kina shell money

1. kaart van Papua New Guinea / Irian Jaya 2. Kina shell money

That was in the time when people were self-contained: they only used, ate or drank the products they made or found themselves. Later they wanted also the products that other people made or produced. Humanity needed a product or rare item to exchange products with. This medium of exchange had to be capable of recapitulating exchange practises, ties and pathways of relationships between ethnic groups or families.

That medium of exchange needed to be rare and hard to get and there should be agreements about the value of the medium of exchange. In Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya people agreed that the kina shell was their medium of exchange until the early 1960s. The value was about 8 kina shells for one full grown pig. The kina shell money it was preserved in a specially woven bark bag. And it maybe dyed with natural red colors and mounted on a board called ‘moka’. The money they use nowadays in this region is called ‘kina’.

People from Papua New Guinea / Irian Jaya wearing Kina shell necklaces.

People from Papua New Guinea / Irian Jaya wearing Kina shell necklaces.

The kina shell was not only money, but was also used as a dowry: the women wore the shells around their neck or in their ears. For the men the kina shell were transformed into a belt. Or was used as a kind of breastplate, that was the finishing touch for a man’s outfit. The crescent shaped kina shell or Gold Lip Shell was also a personal adornment used in ceremonial occasions. There were two holes drilled in both ends of the shell and a woven cord of plant or animal fibres in the holes kept the shell on its place.

In the language of the Melpa (language of the people living in the surroundings of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea) the surface of the shells is compared with the skin of people. The shell has grow rings and the Melpa compared the rings with the generations of families: the mother gets a child and that child will become a mother (or father) too and represent the next ring. The old grow rings support the new rings and the new grow rings will not be there without the older rings.

Back to the kina shell as jewelry. The shells were worn as a necklace and they were removed when the bearer would take on a new life or a new relationship. In some regions a young woman, who supposed to be married with her husband, leaves her family kina shells at her family home and will wear the kina shells of her new family. As a new bond and a respect to the previous owner. Sometimes the kina shells are lent to each other to create new relationships that bring new people together and at the end lead to further exchanges.

People wearing kina shell necklaces

People wearing kina shell necklaces

In the early 1930s the Australians came to the region bringing a lot of shells with them to purchase food and labor. This invasion of kina shells led to a big inflation of the value of the kina shell. The Melpa people gave graduately the use of the kina shell money up and accepted money as a medium of exchange. Keeping their pigs as a basic store of value.

The result was that men married several wives since the men needed the female labor to raise and nurture the pigs they needed. Pigs started to become the new medium of exchange (next to the offical paper money). And the kina shell became more and more the function as an item for decorating the body and an cult object or as a piece of jewelry. Only in the 1960s also the pig lost its importance as a medium of exchange and the people of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya accepted coins and paper money (the kina) as their only way of payment.

1. Wearing Kina shell in ceremony 2. Bag for the kina shell money

1. Wearing Kina shell in ceremony 2. Bag for the kina shell money

When I visited Papua New Guinea in the 1990s I did not know about the background and history of the kina shell. I just loved them for their shape and color. And I was so lucky to be able to buy two of them. Nowadays they are hardly to come by and I am still thinking of making a necklace out of them: a necklace made of money, how special it that!

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