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Thirty Millennia of Dentalium Shellstrings in Australia


Col Davidson
I recently read an article by Bernhard Rabus in the Primitivgeldsammler the Journal of the
German Primitive Money club EUCOPRIMO. The article related to the money attributes of the
dentalium shell strings of the Australian Aborigines and I immediately became interested as I have
a small length of such a string in my collection. I decided to look further into the matter.

The small string in my collection was obtained through Sothebys Sydney and came from a
collector who had purchased them from the Tyrell's Curio shop in Sydney around 1930. They are
said to have been collected by Tyrell's just after World War I and so are about one hundred years
old.

100 year old dentalium beads from my collection

It has been discovered that the dentalium strings were one of the oldest of all of the accepted trade
items of the Australian Aborigine (i)(ii).
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Carpenters Gap I Shelter is a large north facing rockshelter in the Napier Ranges of the Kimberley
in Western Australian. It is currently the oldest radiocarbon dated site in Australia and has been
occupied by Aborigines for a minimum period of 40,000 years. Three dentalium shell fragments,
which are smooth at their openings suggesting their use as beads (called barrgayi by Bardi and
Nyul Nyul people, who still make necklaces from them), have been recovered from the shelter and,
although no specific radiocarbon tests have been made, they have been dated to about 30,000 years
BP.

Ten similar dentalium shell beads have been excavated from Riwi, a small shelter in the same
Devonian limestone formation some 200km East of Carpenters Gap I. All are fragments of tusk
shells belonging to the order Dentaliidae and are associated with radiocarbon dates of about 30,000
years BP. On these shells a residue, visible to the naked eye, is present within the sinuous grooves
and on rough surface areas of the shells, notably the broken ends. Under a microscope 50 this
residue is dark red/black and a Hemastix test on two of these residue patches yielded positive
small results suggesting that there may be some blood in the residue.

30,000 year old dentalium beads from Riwi

Given that no unmodified marine shells of this species have been found at either Riwi or
Carpenter's Gap 1, it is likely that the shell beads were processed elsewhere, possibly on the coast at
their source, and were transported to the inland rock shelters either directly by their manufacturers
or through a system of exchange. At the time when the shell beads were deposited, the Kimberley
coastline would have been located some 500 kilometres from Riwi, and about 300 kilometres from
Carpenter's Gap (30,000 years ago sea levels were lower than today).

In view of the distance the material travelled it seems likely that the shell beads at Riwi and
Carpenter's Gap 1 were highly prized for their decorative or symbolic value. Presumably their
owners wore other ornaments including beads constructed from local materials such as grass and
seeds that have not survived in the archaeological record. Perhaps marine shell beads were more
prestigious than ornaments made from readily available materials. Whatever their use, the evident
selection of raw material and transportation associated with these thirteen shell beads are amongst
the earliest evidence for the long distance procurement of raw materials in Australia and indicates
the presence of wide networks in the early human occupation of the continent.

Skipping forward some 18,000 years we can see a necklace, shown in the photograph, which comes
from Barrow Island off the West Australian coast (iii). It comes from an archaeological site called
Bootie Cave which is situated in a cliff on the western escarpment of the island. Rising seas
separated the island from the mainland about 7,000 years BP and Barrow Island was abandoned by
the Aboriginal people at this time.
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The archaeological evidence from the island is still being analysed but it is thought that the
Aboriginal people started using the site soon after 50,000 years BP. The necklace in question,
however, dates to about 12,000 years BP, based on a direct radiocarbon date of one of the beads.
Once again we find that body jewellery was important to ancient Australia.

12,000 year old dentalium beads from Barrow Island

Moving forward again, this time to the recent past but still in more or less the same area, it is
recorded (iv) that, in the early 1890s, two shell necklaces were collected by Captain Hilliard at
Cygnet Bay on the Dampier Peninsular. One is a plain pearl shell blade pendant (pinjapinja) which
is hung from string threaded with dentalium (bargayi /bargai), which shells are found near the tip of
the Dampier Peninsula at Lombadina.

Bernhard Rabus, in his article (v), shows five lovely photographs of Aboriginal dentalium shell
strings collected from about 1839 to 1905 and now in the Illinois State Museum and the British
Museum. The items all come from Western Australia, three from the same area mentioned above,
one from the Hammersley Ranges (which are hundreds of kilometres from the coast) and one from
Roebuck Bay. A scientist with the 1839 expedition describes the shellstrings as a method of
payment.

Dentalium shell beads were still being made in even more recent times. In 1983 Moya Smith of the
Western Australian Museum recorded a Bardi woman making them with a knife on a stone anvil
(vi). On modern shellstrings held in the Western Australian Museum deposits of ochre are found as
a dark brown residue on the beads. Its similarity to the residue on the Riwi beads makes it possible
that the residue on the older beads might be ochre. Ochre might be deposited on a necklace if it is
worn during activities that include personal body painting.

So, now we have a history of the dentalium shell necklaces stretching back for at least 30,000 years.
The record also shows that, in the times that we have studied, they were valued trade items which
travelled far from their source.
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From the above it seems fairly straightforward that the dentalium necklaces have been a popular
trade item for about thirty millennia in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. But dentalium
shells are washed up onto different coastlines in Australia particularly on both the coast of
northern Western Australia and on the northern coast of Queensland. So, on further study (vii), I
find that the famous anthropologist Walter E Roth in 1910 found that, between the mouths of the
Mitchell and Staaten Rivers, necklaces of Dentalium shell were being manufactured and worn by
men only.

100 year old dentalium beads from between the mouths of Staaten River and Mitchell River

I now value my small dentalium string much more highly and appreciate the history and story of it
and its earlier forms. And, since it was apparently a recognised and valued trade item for such a
period of time, surely the shellstrings would have attained a somewhat standard value in their long
history. I feel that, as a collector of primitive money, I am quite happy to regard them as traditional
trade items and, possibly, even as a money of the Aborigine but they do not really approach the
definition of currency.
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References:

(i) https://www.library.uq.edu.au/ojs/index.php/aa/article/dow
nload/423/451
(ii) https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/ed0b4e
39-41eb-4cee-84f6-049a932c5d46/files/ahc-final-
assessment-full.pdf
(iii) http://museum.wa.gov.au/audiotour/tt/object-19.html
(iv) http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1132&con
text=creartspapers
(v) Der Primitivgeldsammler, Jahrang 37, Heft 1/2016,
Dentalium Strings a form of currency in Australia?,
Bernhard Rabus.
(vi) https://www.academia.edu/1996277/Shell_beads_and_socia
l_behaviour_in_Pleistocene_Australia
(vii) https://australianmuseum.net.au/uploads/journals/16937/93
3_complete.pdf