The Tolai people continue to use Tabu shell money to acquire everyday needs. Photo by Claudio Sieber

In Papua New Guinea, a Tribe Still Uses Shells as Money

VICE Asia takes a closer look at the fascinating culture of the Tolai people, who barter everyday goods like rice and cooking oil for shells
24 January 2019, 10:39am

This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.

While the modern world is shifting to cryptocurrencies and financial technology is growing, the remote province of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea continues to engage in financial transactions with Tabu shell money.

It's been exactly 43 years since Papua New Guinea got its independence from Australia. But even today, shell money or tabu is deeply anchored in the indigenous Tolai society which numbers roughly 120,000 people. The age-old practice has successfully overcome the long-lasting occupations of Germany and Australia, the strong influence of the Catholic education system, and broad economic development and globalization. For the Tolai, these marine treasures are used in an everyday basis to barter essential goods in the villages. It also plays a significant role during all cultural activities.

Shell money is at the center of initiations, weddings, funeral ceremonies, pig feasts, and dictates the rigid hierarchy within the Tolai society. Because they are laborious to make, tabu shows great respect to a payee.

To create tabu, Nassariidae shells or Nassa mud snails, are first harvested by community members who handpick them from the shore or dive under the sea to collect them. They are then dried under the sun until the snails dry out. Next, they are transported to Rabul's port where they are treated for pest control, and later, detergent to rid of the smell. Then the top of each shell is individually removed with the use of pliers. Finally, it is strung together in circles, which is what they look like when they are stored and used for trade.

Tabu Shell Money

The Tolai people pick Nassariidae snails from the slit of a muddy shoreline. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu can be used in Tolai society either directly or indirectly. Directly, it is used for daily barter in villages for essentials and treats like rice, ice cream, cooking oil, sausage, beetle nuts, cigarettes, peanuts and more. It is used in bridal ceremonies, with men paying a woman’s parents to take their daughter as a bride. It is used in initiation ceremonies for young boys, as well as funeral and mourning ceremonies where there is shell breaking or inheritance gifting among clans. It is also used as birthday gifts, in pig feasts where the community contributes tabu for a share of the pig, and as compensation, or for community members to settle a dispute. Tabu can also be exchanged to Kina, the official Papua New Guinea currency, so the Tolai can use tabu to indirectly pay for school fees, taxes, hospital fees, loans, or to purchase equipment, cars or household goods.

On East New Britain’s Gazelle Peninsula alone, the estimated circulation of shell money is between six to eight million Kina or about $2.3 million, crowning the region as the world’s hotspot for old-fashioned bartering. But this comes with problems. Because of the increasing demand for Nassariidae shells, mostly caused by the growth of the Tolai population, East New Britain’s shores which were once considered a limitless source of oceanic currency, have been emptied in an unsustainable manner. These circumstances leave the Tolai society no option but to import new shell money from nearby PNG provinces or even neighboring Solomon Islands.

Decades after the introduction of Papua New Guinea's new cash system, as well as ATMs and loan firms, the Tolai society continues to be driven by shell money and have a long way to go to adjust from a self-sufficient lifestyle to a money-driven economy. For now, they work hard to juggle both - the Kina notes and Toea coins, as well as their beloved tabu.

Below is a photo series of this unique practice by the Tolai people.

Tabu Shell Money

Steven, a Tolai man, dives for mud shells, hoping to collect enough to afford a bride. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu Shell Money

To process the shells, the Tolai first drill the shells with pliers, then thread them onto a string of cane. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu Shell Money

At Kokopo Market, women sell Tabu shell money in exchange for Kina, since only Tabu are accepted in funerals, mourning ceremonies, bridal ceremonies, birthdays and pig feasts. Photo by Claudio Sieber.

Tabu Shell Money

A Tolai man uses Tabu shell money to buy soda. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu Shell Money

At this mourning ceremony after the death of Lua Akuila of the Tolai clan, his Tabu, as is tradition, is broken up and distributed among his clan and all mourners present. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu Shell Money

Charles Zale, a Tolai groom-to-be, carries shell money over to his future bride's parents, to pay a deposit for her worth 50 Kina or $15 in shell money. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu Shell Money

Several Tolai clans from different villages re-enact the arrival of the Christian missionaries and the Bible, before sharing shell money with the crowd which children use to buy goods like ice cream. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu Shell Money

The Tolai people continue to hold on dearly to their traditions and culture. Photo by Claudio Sieber

Tabu shell money

Despite the existence of ATMs and loan firms, the Tolai people still prefer the use of Tabu shell money. Photo by Claudio Sieber