It’s not a question many of us will ever ask: "sorry mate, how many shells is that?” But in the Solomon Islands, shell money is real and it's a question that's asked daily.
“How much tuna you can get for your shells depends on their colour and shape,” explains Mary Bruno, a shop owner from Auki, a small provincial town on the island of Malaita, about a half-an-hour’s flight from the Solomon capital. “One strip of darker shells might get you about two cans of smaller tuna, but the red ones are worth more. For the red ones one strip might get enough tuna to feed a big family for a long time.”
These are just regular shells plucked from the ocean and cut down, polished, and put on a string. The strings are then called “strips” and strips are used to buy stuff from shops. Strips are generally 1 to 1.5 metres long, and come in a range of colours, with red strips worth the most as red shells are rarer. The use of the shells as currency is generally concentrated in the island of Malaita, which is the Solomons’ most populated island. And although the shells aren’t accepted at banks, the majority of shops on the island take shells in exchange for goods.
As in custom, shell money is made exclusively at a place called Langa Langa Lagoon—which is kind of like the mint. I visited Langa Langa to see it for myself and met a couple named Gustav and Serah Kei who run a gorgeous, but terribly advertised tourism operation called Serah’s Hideaway. When I visited their place had a vacancy rate of 98 percent, but they’ve got an income plan B, which is to hoard shell money. And yes, think Doomsday Preppers but with shells.
Gustav insists that some day they’ll no longer be produced, and he’ll end up like Scrooge McDuck swimming in a sea of glorious, highly valuable shells. He might be onto something, as these days the people of Langa Langa actually import raw shells from other areas, as mass production has stripped the lagoon dry. Though Gustav won’t tell me how much shell money he has, he admits he's squirreled away “lots”.
“It’s my nest egg, the shell money,” he says in a German accent weathered by years of tropical humidity and isolation. “I bought most of it 20 to 30 years ago, and it’ll be worth a lot one day.” He also believes their tourism business’ 98 percent vacancy rate had nothing to do with the fact their resort doesn’t have a website, so I don’t know who to believe.
Ignoring the shell money for a moment, Langa Langa is incredible. About 150 years ago the locals built artificial islands throughout the lagoon to escape cannibals who routinely travelled down from the mountains. Locals will tell you that although the cannibals loved to kill (they considered it a sport) they were also afraid of the ocean.
But while they were living on these tiny, artificial islands, the locals needed something to trade, so they began polishing shells in earnest. In the early 1900s shell money was quite common throughout the Asian Pacific. But while those cultures moved away from shells and into currencies underpinned by the greenback, the people of Langa Langa Lagoon stuck with shells, and are today one of the last cultures to use them.
There’s another traditional use for the shells, and that’s as a dowry. In Langa Langa they call this a “bride price,” and it sees would-be grooms exchanging shells for daughters. Compensation is another area where shell money is offered, say, for example, if someone steals something from another village. And although they haven’t quite reached bitcoin levels, locals say the value of shell money has risen five-fold in the past 30 years.
But in light of the rest of the world paying with plastic and clicks of a button, what does the future hold for shells?
These days the majority of shell money is sold to tourists in the form of jewellery at the central market in the capital Honiara. But as Mary Bruno, whose family is from Langa Langa Lagoon explains, shell money is, and always will be, a way-of-life.
“You see it all over the island,” she says. “I think it will be here forever. My children, their children, their children, for another 400 years… that’s what I think.”
Follow Nick on Twitter