Chumash Indians Used Currency 2,000 Years Ago

Shell Beads

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Shell beads discovered in the Santa Barbara Channel area in addition to somewhere else in California. Credit:
Tacy Kennedy / Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Archaeologist argues the Chumash Indians were utilizing extremely worked shell beads as currency 2,000 years back.

As among the most skilled archaeologists studying California’s Native Americans, Lynn Gamble understood the Chumash Indians had actually been utilizing shell beads as cash for a minimum of 800 years. 

But an extensive evaluation of a few of the shell bead record led the UC Santa Barbara teacher emerita of sociology to an amazing conclusion: The hunter-gatherers fixated the Southcentral Coast of Santa Barbara were utilizing extremely worked shells as currency as long as 2,000 years back.

“If the Chumash were using beads as money 2,000 years ago,” Gamble stated, “this changes our thinking of hunter-gatherers and sociopolitical and economic complexity. This may be the first example of the use of money anywhere in the Americas at this time.”

Chumash Kit for Making Shell Beads

A Chumash set for making shell beads. Credit: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Although Gamble has actually been studying California’s native individuals given that the late 1970s, the motivation for her research study on shell bead cash originated from far afield: the University of Tübingen in Germany. At a seminar there some years back, the majority of the speakers gone over coins and other non-shell types of cash. Some, she stated, were amazed by the presumptions of California archaeologists about what made up cash.

Intrigued, she examined the meanings and recognitions of cash in California and questioned a few of the long-held beliefs. Her research study caused “The origin and usage of shell bead cash in California” in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

Chumash Cupped Beads

Chumash cupped beads from purple dwarf olive sea snails (Olivella biplicata). Credit: Lynn Gamble / SBMNH collection

Gamble argues that archaeologists must utilize 4 requirements in evaluating whether beads were utilized for currency versus accessory: Shell beads utilized as currency ought to be more labor-intensive than those for ornamental functions; extremely standardized beads are most likely currency; larger, captivating beads were most likely utilized as design; and currency beads are extensively dispersed.

“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 stated. “For example, 10s of thousands were discovered with simply one person up in the San Francisco Bay Area. This bead type, referred to as a dish bead, was produced south of Point Conception and most likely on the northern [Santa Barbara] Channel Islands, according to several sources of information, a minimum of most, if not all of them.

Chumash Olivella Biplicata Rough Disc Beads

Chumash Olivella biplicata rough disc beads made in the historical duration, after European contact. Credit: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

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

As Gamble notes, shell beads have actually been utilized for over 10,000 years in California, and there is comprehensive proof for the production of a few of these beads, particularly those typical in the last 3,000 to 4,000 years, on the northern Channel Islands. The proof consists of shell bead-making tools, such as drills, and huge quantities of shell bits — fragments — that cluttered the surface area of historical sites on the islands.

In addition, professionals have actually kept in mind that the isotopic signature of the shell beads discovered in the San Francisco Bay Area show that the shells are from south of Point Conception.

“We know that right around early European contact,” Gamble stated, “the California Indians were trading for many types of goods, including perishable foods. The use of shell beads no doubt greatly facilitated this wide network of exchange.”

Gamble’s research study not just resets the origins of cash in the Americas, it casts doubt on what makes up “sophisticated” societies in prehistory. Because the Chumash were non-agriculturists — hunter-gatherers — it was long held that they wouldn’t require cash, although early Spanish colonizers admired comprehensive Chumash trading networks and commerce.

Recent research study on cash in Europe throughout the Bronze Age recommends it was utilized there some 3,500 years back. For Gamble, that and the Chumash example are substantial since they challenge a consistent point of view amongst economic experts and some archaeologists that so-called “primitive” societies might not have actually had “commercial” economies.

“Both the terms ‘complex’ and ‘primitive’ are highly charged, but it is difficult to address this subject without avoiding those terms,” she stated. “In the case of both the Chumash and the Bronze Age example, standardization is a key in terms of identifying money. My article on the origin of money in California is not only pushing the date for the use of money back 1,000 years in California, and possibly the Americas, it provides evidence that money was used by non-state level societies, commonly identified as ‘civilizations.’ ”

Reference: “The origin and use of shell bead money in California” by Lynn H. Gamble, 28 October 2020, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2020.101237

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