Shell Money, Dowries and the Skulls of Ancestors: The Living Traditions of the Solomon Islands

by on Friday, 26 April 2013 Comments

One of the lineage ancestor, a woman coming from the island of Bougainville, is supposed to have been the one having introduced shell money, the making of which the Langalanga people are reputed for. We accompany some women of the village to a neighboring island where they gather shells, and we witness the process of preparing shells into long strings, white, black, red, which will be given as bride price or used for other occasions.

lagoon09ONLINEThe shell used is first broken into small pieces. A flint tool, fixed on to a drill, serves to bore a hole in the fragment. These small pieces are threaded and the string thus made is progressively smoothed. Some islanders have started a kind of advocacy movement, pleading for the recognition of shell money as an alternative national currency. Actually, Malaita shell money is only one of the forms of traditional currency used for exchanges of goods such as canoes among different ethnic communities, payments for bride price, or settling of disputes and sealing reconciliation. Bird feathers, dog teeth, porpoise teeth were also accounted for. Also, fossilized clam shell rings were in use in the western Solomon Islands.

Thomas, our host in the lagoon village, intones a eulogium of past customs. He demonstrates to us how the bride price was negotiated, announced and offered, strings of shell money lying on the ground, and I cannot but feel a bit uneasy: I do sense the beauty of the traditions he narrates and the loss of which he deplores, but I also sense the burden that was imposed on women, whose use value and chastity were evaluated and publicized in such a way.

But a moment later, I feel truly moved when Thomas makes me visit, in the part of the village where only men were able to gather, the ruins of a hut where the skull of a deceased custom priest still lies on a stone. In ancient times, the body was decaying on the ground, embalmed with leaves, for seven days, before the skull was introduced in the hut through a special door, different from the one used by the living. At one point, Thomas starts to speak to the skull in this familiar, conversational and yet deferential tone which I have heard in Tafalong – the same voice you use for elders and for ancestors, gently informing them of the coming of a stranger, and telling them that they have nothing to worry about. The depth and familiarity of the relationship between the living and the ancestral world resonate deeply in my heart.

Photos by B.V.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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