Try saying that really really quickly.

The island of New Guinea, the world’s second-largest, lies just north of Australia at the far eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, where the Coral Sea becomes the South Pacific.

The land mass is split right down the middle into two roughly equal pieces: the country Papua New Guinea on the right {err, east?} and two Indo provinces, Papua and West Papua, on the left.  In this post though I am talking about the whole island really, as this political divide has obvs only very recently come about, and anyway there’s some cool stuff to talk about in Papua New Guinea the country.

That’s Australia you can see peeking out on the bottom right of the map.

As you can also see on the map, the geography of the island is pretty dramatic, covered in raging rivers, jungle-filled ravines and a huge mountain spine stretching the length of the island.

The old Malay word ‘pua-pua’ {or ‘frizzy-haired’} is said to have been the root of the name Papua, inspired by the hairstyles of the islanders.  Later on in the 16th century Ortíz de Retes, the Spanish explorer, coined the term ‘Nueva Guinea’ referring to these same people’s similarities to the inhabitants of Africa’s Guinea region.  The two names then splurged together to form the delightfully exotic-sounding Papua New Guinea.

It seems that Señor Ortíz de Retes knew what he was talking about as the majority of the current day population of the island are the descendants of an influx of people around 40,000 years ago.  At that time the island was still part of the larger Asian land mass, and this inflow of people formed part of the first human mass migration out of Africa.

The ancestors of the rest of the population were Austronesians who arrived by sea a paltry 3,500 years ago, in a migration from Southeast Asia, and who bagged some prime real estate on the offshore islands and coastal regions of New Guinea.

Before the Europeans rocked up, Tidore Island {part of the next door Molukas, or Spice Islands} owned many of the coastal regions of Papua, which is a smidge confusing given their relative sizes but I guess that’s how the UK’s empire operated back in the day.  Oh and Tidore was rolling in cash thanks to its tightly controlled monopoly on the global clove trade – it seems they were quite a big deal back then, not just used for one’s annual batch of mulled wine.

Err digressing again…so when eventually, and inevitably, the Dutch came along and beat up the ruling Sultan of Tidore, much of Papua also joined the Dutch East Indies along with the Spice Islands.

The first Euros to set eyes on the island however were Spanish and Portuguese sailors in the early 16th century.  I won’t go into detail here as it’s pretty dull but basically over the next five or so centuries the Brits, Germans, Dutch, Australians and Japanese brawled over ownership of various parts of the island, carved it into a series of tetris-like shapes and desperately tried to stop its inhabitants eating each other.

Then in 1961 the lefthand half of the island became independent, and was quickly scooped up into Indonesia two years later.

New Guinea is similar to Flores {which I wrote about recently – see here} in that its rugged and inhospitable landscape makes travelling around the island pretty tough.  This inconvenience, along with the sheer amount of time that the island’s been inhabited, has meant that a huge number of different tribes and languages have evolved: almost 1000 tribal groups have been identified and nearly as many languages {that’s way more languages than on your average continent}.  And the interior of the island has not even been fully explored yet, it’s truly one of the last unknown parts of the planet – it’s estimated that there are around 45 more tribal groups yet to be discovered.

{these incredible images are from old German postcards from the early 1900’s – you can imagine the thrills back home in the Potsdamer Platz oogling these {occasionally} cannibal ‘natives’ – I hate that word}

These days the pastimes of cannibalism and headhunting have been almost entirely wiped out, but in olden times they were pretty much de rigueur when waging war against one’s neighbours or feeling a bit peckish.  10,000 human skulls were discovered in the traditional longhouses of Goaribari Island in 1901, and it is alleged that  Michael C. Rockefeller met the same fate in 1961 when on an art sourcing trip near Otsjanep village.

One exceptionally scary tribe were the Kukukuku people, who particularly enjoyed the taste of Australian administrators – apparently even as late as the 1960s, when they turned up at Highlands sing-sings {traditional festivals} people stayed away.

So that’s a little background on the island, let’s now take a peek at what we are really interested in here at Anserai: some seriously blooming beautiful tribal necklaces.  Natural seashells have played a really important role in the trade networks and ceremonial traditions of Papua for a long long time.

I have not been able to totally get to the bottom of this but as far as I can tell different items were traditionally used as currency in different parts of the island, with pigs and the Money Cowrie shell taking precedence over the lot of them.  Pigs were {and still are, I think} a really really big deal – any form of interaction that involves status requires partial payment in pigs, such as bride prices, tribal debts and ceremonial occasions.  However we can’t source pigs from Papua nor would they look great framed on your wall or stuffed on your sofa, so I shall leave all pig chat here I think.

Lesser-valued {yet more framing-friendly} items included bird feathers, fruit bat teeth, coloured soils, pig’s tusks, nassa shells and dog teeth.  The latter were actually so valuable just before the start of World War I that apparently the Germans produced a huge quantity of ‘home-made’ porcelain versions and shipped them to their colony for trade – that’s cheating, right?!

Even now in Papua New Guinea people sometimes pay for goods in markets with cowries.  Banknotes and coins are seen as a relatively new phenomenon, and people often prefer to own goods such as weapons or pigs as opposed to money itself.

‘So what’s the big deal with Money Cowries?’, I hear you ask.  See here for some general ramblings on cowries used as currency around the world, and keep on reading for Papua-specifics.

Cowries were used all over the island, but obviously were much more common around the coastal edges than in the central highlands, where they ended up after a long journey being passed from one trade post to the next.  The shells were often strung in factors of ten on pieces of cane or rope, and the further from the coast they were taken the higher their value: a whole string would be traded for a family’s dinner on the coast, but in the highlands far away from the source people who had never set eyes on the ocean would eke them out one at a time.

In a much cited story, the Australian explorers the Leahy brothers, imported thousands and thousands of cowrie shells to pay their workers in the gold mines of the central highlands, rather than money.  However what’s not widely known is that this huge inflow of shells massively devalued the existing stock, so tribes such as the Me started to attach different values to the old pre-colonial shells and the newer ones.  In addition to this they were graded based on shape, colour and size, which resulted in value differentials of over 300 in some cases – I guess those ones must have been particularly old and well-formed whoppers.

Almost all of our tribal necklaces feature the beautiful cowrie shell, as well as the ubiquitous black nassa {which you can see on the bottom left corner of this pic}:

There were also two other important forms of traditional shell currency: the Kina and Toea shells {pair of kina on the top of the pic below, toea on the bottom}.

The kina shell is cut from the gold-lipped pearl shell, and often has small circles and/or scratches along its edges to draw attention to its shape.  It is usually strung with a cord featuring seedpod decorations or with just a simple carrying cord {like these two below}.  Really old ones are sometimes given their own name which is carved into the back of the shell, and you can tell how many owners these ones have had from the number of knots tied in the cord.

You can see that the kina on the lefthand side above has previously been used as payment in a ceremony, as it has been stained with red dye and would have been stuck onto a ‘moka’, a display board covered in clay.

As well as used as currency, these gorgeous shells were worn for ceremonial and celebratory purposes, either alone {as above} or in a cascade that looks more like a chest plate.

They were also used for bride prices, as well as blood feud paybacks and {apparently} admission to secret societies and men’s clubs.

The other shell in the pic up top is the toea, a circular piece cut with a bamboo knife, and with a hole in the centre for stringing into necklaces and bracelets.  They are also worn singly as nose pieces:

The terms kina and toea live on in the modern currency of Papua New Guinea, which replaced the Australian dollar in 1975: 100 toea coins make up one kina.  The one kina coin even had a hole in the centre, mimicking the old toea shells {but I think these have been discontinued now}:

Interesting, huh?

A couple of our necklaces feature a column of stunning toea shells {see the lefthand image at the bottom of this post} and we also have one uncut Kina gold-lipped pearl shell up for grabs {the piece on the far right here}:

Which conveniently brings me to the topic of ‘bilas’, whew this is turning into quite the treatise.

‘Bilas’ is, to all intents and purposes, Papuan bling.  The word is said to have derived from the English ‘flash’, and describes the traditional jewellery, clothes, make up {well, body paint} and other ornaments used to decorate oneself for a ceremony or sing-sing festival.  Basically the more bling, the more powerful and proud the tribal group, so everyone tries to outshine their neighbours as best they can.

Bilas items comprise necklaces, nose pieces, headbands, chest ornamentation, armbands, headdresses and bracelets.  A bewildering range of flora and fauna go into these accessories {deep breath}: cowrie shells, bird of paradise feathers, porpoise teeth, ferns, kina shells, bamboo, seedpods, crocodile teeth, toea shells, pig tusks, flying fox teeth, vines, nassa shells, trade beads, coral, dog teeth, orchids, beetles, fur, bark, croton leaves and {at least in the olden days} smoked human fingers, sometimes still attached to their owner’s hand.

Actually apparently still to this day bones of deceased relatives or vanquished enemies are worn to take advantage of their spiritual power.

We’ve sourced a whole crate load of these bilas-inspired beauties for our first collection, featuring many many shells, seed pods, feathers, coral (wash up, not ripped-from-a-reef, just to be clear), wood and even teeth – no smoked digits though, I promise.

We suspect that some parts of a few of the necklaces might actually be really quite old but we do not know for sure so are calling them all ‘inspired by’ to be safe – we’ll note down on the individual product pages more info though, stay tuned…

{credits: Anserai / Wikimedia Commons}

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