Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Collecting metal: the inner and outer worlds of jewelry, coins, bullion bits, and odd shiny things

Millions of millennia ago, in our own Milky Way galaxy, but far upstream of where we are today, two neutron stars spiraled around each other, each embodying the mass of a sun but smaller and faster than a speeding planet. Each of these tiny gigaworlds, millions of times denser than our sun, had been produced, not by a mere exploding star, but by a far more powerful supernova. Each supernova, burning a nuclear fire with a far greater power density than a normal star such as our sun, had besides a neutron star also produced a cavalcade of new elements.  For elements lighter than iron, this nuclear fusion releases energy; but for elements heavier than iron, including copper, silver, and gold, nuclear fusion requires a net energy input as well as astronomical power densities.  Our supernovae were powerful enough to create many metals, including copper and silver, from the fusion of lighter elements.  But they were not powerful enough to create gold. Gold awaited the current, far more powerful and rarer event. 

Our two stars, fortuitously set into collision course by two separate supernovae, approached each other and then, captured by each others’ gravity, entered a death spiral.  They collided in an unimaginable explosion, unleashing a power density far greater than that of a mere supernova and trillions of times greater than if a mere mountain-sized asteroid had hit the earth. The collision was so intense that it created a black hole and a burst of extremely high energy light called gamma rays. Escaping the black hole along with the gamma rays was a spray of new, heavier metals, including gold.  This gold-rich cloud in part expanded and in part coalesced, participating in the subsequent formation of new solar systems, including our own. Due to this collision of rare intensity, our unusual solar system was seeded with astronomically rare heavy metals such as gold along with the more common supernova products such as copper and silver. [Source]

Copper (Cu), Silver (Ag), and Gold (Au) sit on top of each other on the periodic table, sharing many electrical, chemical, and material properties that enhance their durability and divisibility. Gold, the heaviest, required the most extreme conditions and energy to form, as all elements were generated, from lighter elements. Copper required easier conditions to form and is thus much more common, with silver in between.
Billions of years later, naked apes evolved with hypertrophied brains and clever hands, living on a planet in this gold-dusted solar system. They dug out the gold and silver they could find and separated it from the more common earth.  Other more common metals were more useful for concretely usable tools; instead they fashioned the precious metals into what looks to our eyes like jewelry. They formed these precious metals into shapes both repetitive and unique, bragged about them, displayed them, stored them as “treasure”, “wealth”, and “money”. They fashioned gold and silver into wearable objects, transferred them to each other or stole them, even injuring or killing each other in pursuit of them. They used the gold and silver to pay each other compensation for those and many other injuries. People transferred gold and silver to each other in order to satisfy important obligations as well as to obtain items of more direct and obvious use.  Since the most important such obligations happened at many of the most fitness-critical junctures of life – marriage, death, injury, war – gold and silver, as treasure and as money, came to be greatly desired.

Some metal collectibles came in a wide variety of artistically skilled forms. Others came in the form of coins: labeled, mass-produced pieces of metal stamped by the blow of a hammer or cast in molds, whereby a mostly-trusted brand named their alleged value. Still others came in forms that look odd to us, resembling neither coins nor fancy jewelry, but rather utilitarian-looking pieces that manage to make precious metals ugly, and that might have been worn but that look, long before the era of factories, like they were mass produced. .  People around the world wore gold jewelry proudly, and globe-straddling monetary systems, on which economies were said to be based, were defined around gold and silver objects and debts denominated in weights of those metals.

We can think of collectibles as coming at us at two levels, like railroads and trains, or like pipelines and the oil they carry. At the most basic or “inner layer” is the metal itself that constitutes the substance of the collectible: occasionally iron, more typically copper or bronze for the less valuable collectibles, and the precious metals, especially gold and silver, for the more valuable money and treasure.

The “protocol stack”, or distinct layers of cultural understanding, for objects made out of precious metals: the natural, rare, and durable substance itself, versus the particular forms given to it as artwork, jewelry, coins, etc.

So important is the “lower layer” of the traditional cultural understanding of gold and silver, the natural substance itself, evaluated by its weight rather than by any value added via the craftsmanship or its form, that Europeans of earlier generations evolved a word for it: bullion.  Bullion is the metal itself, considered and valued only for its substance. Jewelry, coins, and other ways of shaping precious metals are just various forms of the underlying bullion.

The famous gold/silver ratio (exchange rate) operates at this basic level. The cost and supply of precious metals, given the technological similarity of the means for mining and processing each, are dominated by their natural origins in the stars above and the geology below.

Viking hoard unearted in Watlington, Scotland: silver coins, small ingots, and jewelry. Why were were coins (“money”) so often stashed with jewelry (“ornament”)? And what is up with those lumps? [Source]
Besides their different origins in neutron star collisions and supernovae respectively, once our solar system had formed, the way our earth and its moon were formed may have also been important: when another planet collided with an earlier form of the earth, and the resulting debris clouds reformed into the earth and moon as we know it, heavier metals tended to stick with the heavier body while the lighter ones (which don’t include precious metals) tended to stick with the moon. Another theory holds that this collision did not matter: practically all the mineable concentrations of gold sunk to the center anyway; the gold we mine today came from a spate of later asteroid bombardment, said asteroids also being formed in the gold-rich dust of our early solar system.

More local geology also played a role in where we have found gold and silver: equatorial Africa was formed with more gold than Europe, and Europe and Bolivia with more silver than China.  As a result, the value (in terms of other kinds of goods) of gold and silver could vary significantly across the planet, as well as the exchange rate between the two precious metals.  Only with modern transportation and ubiquitous markets has the gold:silver price ratio, as well as the exchange rates between precious metals and other goods, converged on ratios that hold the world over.

Spheres of transfer and local distinctions

In 1959 Paul Bohannan [1] coined the phrase “spheres of exchange” to refer to moral or legal distinctions made between different types of exchange. Often one set of collectibles was expected to be used in one kind of exchange, and another distinct set in another. Since there are several important kinds of wealth transfer besides exchange, we can generalize Bohannan’s idea to the concept of spheres of transfer.  In Western cultures (and many other modern cultures under their influence), for example, we make a strong distinction between money, meant for the rapid turnover of earning and spending, and heirlooms that are expected to stay in the family for generations, with feelings of guilt or shame occurring if we have to sell a family heirloom.  But it’s fine to use an heirloom ring for a marriage. Similarly, we make a strong distinction between stocks and bonds on the one hand and decorative wealth objects such as jewelry and artwork on the other.  So strong is our taboo that if a Western archaeologist finds a wearable (as in forager days they mostly were) collectible, it is automatically and dogmatically labeled “ornamental” or “symbolic”, with wealth-related uses seldom considered.  (It also doesn’t help that shells, often scarce and precious treasures in indigenous environments, look like cheap tourist knick-knacks to modern eyes). 

The transition from shell to metal: beads fashioned from copper (dark) and from Spondylus (spiny oyster) shells (light). The shells, transported by foot (probably by many feet and many hands) hundreds of miles from the Aegean Sea, had for thousands of years been popular in the Danube river basin when the world’s earliest metal artifacts were invented there. The first copper and gold artifacts were beads fashioned to substitute for the Spondylus beads in Danubian jewelry. [Source]

Legal or moral sanctions discourage transfer of objects from one sphere to another.  In feudal European societies it was shameful and often even illegal to sell or mortgage land: a lord’s duty was to preserve his land and devise it intact to his eldest son. In modern Western society, weddings are one sphere of transfer (where a gift of a finger-ring is expected, as well as some household items from the guests and a feast or party thrown by the parents), whereas commerce and legal remedy in civil law is another (where payment of money is expected).  Some aspects of our bodies (such as ownership of humans or payment for sex or body organs) are off limits to monetary compensation – one is expected to donate an organ, not to sell it – while many others are not (most health care, for example). All of these spheres can involve transfers of objects of substantial value, but it is disgraceful and/or illegal if they are the too obviously the wrong ones for the given sphere.

The world’s oldest gold artifact – a small bead from the lower Danube river basin (4,600-4,500 BC).  [Source]

In the modern West, we consider the realm of jewelry and the realm of money to be very separate spheres of transfer.   It is considered either a shameful betrayal or a grim necessity if the winner of an Olympic or Nobel Prize medal or a Super Bowl ring sells it to raise money. The finger-ring is a central feature of modern weddings, but few things would offend a typical modern bride more than being paid a bride price, she or her kin being indemnified by money as if she, as we would see it, were a prostitute on long-term contract.  Meanwhile, our economists obsess over money while touching on the subject of jewelry hardly at all, and certainly not as any sort of form or variant of money.  We moderns can hardly imagine confusing such seemingly very different things, and indeed the very idea offends our sensibilities. But in many non-Western and earlier Western cultures this was far from the case. For them the fundamental protocol layer, the substance itself, is cherished for its own sake, and forms the great majority of the value of the item, while its protocol layer two, the “outer layer”, the particular form it has been fashioned into, while often of considerable interest, is usually quite secondary in determining its value for purposes of the display and transfer of wealth.

Recycling of gold jewelry in the United States: usually to be recast as bullion bars for central bank and gold exchange-traded-fund (ETF) reserves, or for export to Asia for making jewelry for which the gold content is far more important than in the West. Occasionally cast into gold coins for “gold bugs” and collectors.
This modern Western restriction involves the more culturally local aspect of gold and silver, namely the particular form it takes (jewelry vs. coin), even though these objects are made out of the same underlying substance, and traditionally were mainly prized for the content by weight of that substance. Even in our own culture we have businesses that serve to transfer gold and silver from one sphere to another. Nevertheless, economists and other academicians often act as if money and jewelry are scientifically and objectively very distinct objects, when in fact this is a cultural convention that is largely confined to the modern West.  

Globe-trotting gold dealer Roy Sebag has [described] the differences between Asian and Western views of jewelry.  As he describes it, over $2 trillion worth of jewelry is owned by about 2 billion people in India and China alone, constituting a much larger fraction of their wealth on average than in the West. The metal content of the gold jewelry constitutes the vast majority of its  sales price and its assessed value as collateral, as it also does in Brazil, Russia, and most other countries outside of Western Europe, the British Commonwealth, and the United States.  In the latter countries, precious metal content constitutes only a small fraction of the sales price or pawning value of jewelry.  “Jewelry is money” is how Sebag summarizes his observations of the modern Asian jewelry market.

In cultures without a strong distinction between decorative jewelry and money, they often didn’t even bother melting it down to switch from coins to lower velocity but more displayable forms of wealth. Roman gold coin minted c. 400 AD, converted in the 7th century into an Anglo- Saxon pendant: [Source] [See also]

While the “lower" or "inner"  layer of the metal collectible “protocol stack” is its natural substance, its “upper" or "outer" layer is the particular form it takes. Sometimes it is mass produced (as in coins and common bead shapes) and sometimes it is a unique work of exquisite and rare craftsmanship.  Form and style is the “protocol layer” of gold artifact most highly valued and distinguished in modern Western jewelry; but it is far less valued, compared to the natural substance itself, in the vast majority of Asian and pre-modern Western jewelry.  As with [pre-metal forms of collectibles], the form of metal collectibles can be sub-divided, in a way generalizable across nearly all known cultures, into treasure (typically of high value and not as an object fungible or divisible, unless melted down destroying the particular object) and money (objects such as coins that are meant to be efficiently transferred and combined with other such objects to create the particular amount of value needed). 

Metal or metaled treasure has taken the form of gilded objects, sculptures, various utilitarian objects enhanced artistically and made out of the scarcer metals, as well as jewelry. Treasure was, and sometimes still is, typically used for heirlooms, displays of wealth, as collateral for loans of money, and for large wealth transfers. In traditional societies these wealth transfers usually accompanied fitness-critical events.  They often occurred at marriages, deaths, to satisfy obligations entered into to end wars, and as compensation for major injuries, as well as in helping to facilitate trade.

The Stollhoff hoard – copper spirals and axe blades as well as gold discs from the upper Danube river watershed (modern Austria), c. 4000 BC. Spiral armbands were among the earliest large items worked from native copper, in the middle Danubian basin (modern Hungary) c. 5000-4500 BC.
Money as this work defines it, on the other hand, can be distinguished from treasure by its fungibility and divisibility.  In our Western tradition metal money and coins are practically synonymous, but with cross-cultural observations, as for example in [2] and [3], and even in modern Asia as Sebag has observed, the distinction between money and jewelry is far less clear-cut – with the proviso that in his mind, as well as in the minds of the jewelry customers and suppliers he observed, it is the divisibility and fungibility of the substance itself, not its form, that is paramount. Nevertheless, a significant fraction of the forms jewelry comes in, such as beads and constant-width wires, could be treated by their users if they so desired as fungible and divisible without destruction of even the form of the object.  Indeed, such forms in jewelry, especially in the archaeological record, are more common than would seem likely if solely artistic and never monetary considerations had been involved in their original design.  As a result of bringing their cultural assumptions to bear, endless energy has been wasted by Western observers trying to distinguish non-Western “money” or “primitive money” from non-Western “jewelry”.
Boringly standard, divisible, and fungible, in its particular form as well as in the underlying metal, but boasting neither the kings and dates on coins desired by historians nor the fine craftsmanship of unique work beloved of museums, and categorizable by the dominant academic ideologies as neither money nor art nor ornament, so it sits packed in boxes in the cellar of the Danish National Museum, like many other such mundane but important artifacts underneath museums around the world. About 2,000 small gold spirals were buried in a fur-lined wooden box in Denmark between 900-700 B.C.  [Source]

Law and “money”

Western (roughly speaking, European-derived) law, which now dominates the world, can be very flexible when it comes to applying itself to money.  When supporting money with legal institutions, it tends to take a definition far more narrow the “medium of exchange and store of value” definition beloved of economists. When discouraging undesired forms, amounts, or velocities of money, on the other hand, law sometimes takes in a far broader scope of objects than Western economists think of as money. 

One of the more common modern legal definitions of “money”, used for laws that facilitate and support financial interchange (such as contracts for goods, checks, collateral for loans, etc.), is that money can only be an official government currency (see for example). By definition, no substance or form of matter or pattern of information of any kind, regardless of how it functions or how it is used, can be money, if has not been authorized or adopted by a government. You cannot write a legal check in any of the United States for ounces of gold or Bitcoin, because gold and Bitcoin are not, per the Uniform Commercial Code, “money”. 

Such definitions, while quite necessary to understand if you hope to deal with money in the majority of modern countries with such laws, are hopelessly specific to a certain kind of culture and politics, as well as being scientifically unsound as a basis for reasoning about even just the role of money in exchange even in cultures living under such laws, much less its actual much wider role in wealth transfers and in other cultures without such laws. Thus outside of this section we will neglect such official definitions of money in this work. Instead we use the objective definition presented here. This is certainly not the only possible definition of “money”; many far wider,  far narrower, and very conflicting definitions of this word have been used in the ethnographic, anthropologic, archaeological, and economic literatures, usually implicitly rather than consciously, thereby causing the reader to join the author in being hopelessly confused about the subject.

Thus when enforcing rules for modern financial institutions, modern law uses a very narrow definition of money; the many other ways of storing and transferring wealth are not allowed to benefit from these advanced institutions. But when cracking down on alleged abuses of money, law often restricts a far wider array of objects used to store and transfer wealth. A great illustration of the monetary nature of jewelry is given by the current (as of this writing) Indian demonetization law.  The crackdown includes gold and focuses on its natural substance, not its mere form as coin (“money” to modern Western eyes) as opposed to jewelry (supposedly “ornament” not “money”).  Under Indian law it is all subject to stringent controls alongside the notes and coins: 

 …the rules governing when tax officials could seize gold: Nothing would happen “if the holding is limited to 500 grams per married woman, 250 grams per unmarried woman and 100 grams per male.” It also said that there would be no limits on jewelry “provided it is acquired… from inheritance.” [Source]

When Mongol conqueror Kublai Khan issued paper currency in late medieval China, to make this poorly trusted scheme work his government confiscated gold and silver, jewelry and coin alike, gems and pearls as well as gold and silver, in a forced exchange for the paper notes. [7]

Bullion bits and odd shiny things

Divisible and fungible metal forms such as coins, small thin ingots (hack-silver), arm-rings and wire, and beads have to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the culture, been used for small or frequent payments made to people who commonly need to make small acquisitions (such as the wages of soldiers and laborers), as well as to round out a value of a large wealth transfer to a specific desired value, that otherwise mostly constitutes treasure, indivisible and of a unique value somewhat different than the value desired, via custom, law, or negotiations, for the wealth transfer. 

W.B. Dickinson observed the ubiquity, both as archaeological artifacts in many far-flung parts of Eurasia and in widespread use in East Asia and Indian Ocean regions, of precious metals (bullion) in wire, coil, and arm-ring, in bullion forms that looked more utilitarian than decorative, and noted the wear on such artifacts indicating that at least some had probably passed from hand to hand with a velocity more coin-like than treasure-like. He observed that their existence extended

throughout countries extending from Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Socotra, the Persian Gulf to Ceylon, China, Japan, Siam, and the whole East, to the south-west coast of Africa, to the north of Europe, to England and to Ireland. That the people of so many places, and in so various ages, should have formed their bullion and other metals into this particular form solely for the purpose of barter, without attaching to it any monetary character, seems a conclusion very difficult to arrive at…these forms were to all intents and purposes the money of the respective lands.[4]

Larger ingots, and modern central bank gold bars, and ingots of intermediate value, such as the medieval Chinese silver sycee, also called 元寶: “primary treasure”.  Originally “sycee” was Cantonese for “fine silk”, when that costly cloth was a main form of treasure; later it was superseded as treasure by the boat-shaped silver ingots, which inherited the word “sycee”, since it by then had become the generic term in Cantonese for “treasure”. 

Even though large ingots come in a standard form, divisible and fungible at large granularities of value, they can by our organizational scheme more properly be categorized as treasure than as money, since they were typically used like treasure in larger wealth transfers and as collateral for loans or (during the recent historical gold standard era) issues of debt-money.  

Silver stamped sycee ingot. [Source]

Our distinction between treasure and money, it should be apparent, is not clear-cut and is not of crucial economic or political importance. More important and much more scientifically observable is the distinction between collectibles like coins, beads, and works of laborious or uncommon craftsmanship on the one hand, and non-collectibles of concrete utility or trivial decoration on the other. I have described this distinction with many examples and much explanation in Artifacts of Wealth and Shelling Out: The Origins of Money.

The collectible continuum – more like money as we go towards the top left, more like treasure as we go towards the bottom right.

The main differences between ingots and traditional treasure were that the latter were also used as displays of wealth, whence their highly varied forms, which served to show off often high levels of craftsmanship as well as the precious metal itself.  A great variety of very subtle and clever techniques were developed for maximizing the surface area covered by a given weight of gold or silver, more bling for the buck, since the metal was the main feature of the show.

A great many cultures were observed to use non-coinage metal objects as money (by our definition), or treasure, or both, and a great many more probable such cases are implicit in the archaeological record. We can only mention a fraction of these as examples in this work.

In Viking Iceland, silver rings (by weight) were used along with cloth and cattle to pay wergeld (compensation for injuries) and bridewealth, as well as a standard of value for exchange:

Frithof breaks his ring in pieces and distributes it to his followers, so that they shall not be impecunious in the underworld. Rings were used in marriage payments and wergeld, the latter being estimated by haugatal or ring tale. A silver ring weighing 12 ounces was the compensation for the loss of a thrall, 100 rings or 100 head of cattle for a freeman.  ([2] p284)
Ring-money and hack-silver were also made and used in the rest of the pagan European north, including Scandinavia and early Anglo-Saxon England. In Celtic Ireland, “rings” in the form of divisible coils of gold or bronze were used along with cattle and slaves in injury compensation and bridewealth. ([4], [2] p287, [3] p238). 

In Homeric Greece, injury compensation, slave sales, and bridewealth often included gold by weight.  ([5] p27, [11], [3] p91). In Rome before the introduction of coinage, bronze or copper ingots were used, per the Twelve Tables, to pay compensation for injuries.

Non-coinage silver was also common until recent times in the vast Indian Ocean trade region as well as a number of inland cultures of south Asia. In Burma silver by weight was used for exchange and bridewealth: 

anybody wanting to transact business on the market must be provided with a lump of silver, a hammer, a chisel, weighing scales and weights.. he then quotes a price in weight. Thereupon they proceed to cut off from the lump of silver a corresponding piece which is then weighed. Often the operation has to be repeated several times until the correct weight is achieved. ([3] p95)

In Siam, gold and silver “flowers” and “leaves” were used for bridewealth and tribute. ([2] p215, 219); various weights of silver “lumps” (small ingots) were also in widespread use ([3] p93).

In the Hormuz and Lars in the Persian Gulf, and in some other parts around the Indian Ocean, were made the “fish-hook money” or silver larins used widely in the far-flung Indian Ocean trade.  Such silver wires were accepted by weight across a dizzying variety of cultures. [2] p192-196

Larins, or silver wires bent double, and often stamped by maker; current in the very extensive Indian Ocean trade before and during the Age of Exploration. “If any suspect the goodness of the Plate it is the Custom to burn the Money in a fire red hot, and so put it in water; and if it be not then purely white it is not Currant Money.” ([2] p196)  Such a technique would have worked for assaying a wide variety of wire-, coil-, or ring-like silver objects.
Bronze bells manufactured in China were used to make high-value payments in several parts of the Chinese trading periphery, such as the Philippines.  ([3] p84). In the Philippine lowlands, metal luxury goods (kettles, gongs, and jars) as well as gold beads were used for a variety of wealth display and transfer purposes ([2] p265). In China bells were the first objects that were uniquely metallic; other early metal objects such as knives, beads, etc. had been made out of other materials much earlier. Thus the Chinese adopted the word and pictograph of a bell 金 for metal (and even for gold in particular). Metal spades were styled 錢, which, via the spades that became stylized and stamped to invent early coins, became the Chinese term for “money”.  [Source]

Among the early coins – defined as standardized metal objects stamped with a standard value -- were the Chinese bronze spade money, c. 475-221 BC [Source]

Copper crosses, rods, and similar shapes were popular forms of bridewealth and payment for exchange in the  many cultures of the Congo ([2] p78-80).  The Thonga, in what was then Portuguese East Africa, used brass rings along with mats, baskets, cattle, and beads for bridewealth, injury compensation, and fines.  ([2] p104-5).  The Ndebele and Nguni of Zimbabwe used brass rings and cattle for bridewealth and exchange. ([Source1], [Source2], and [2] p105)

The people of Alor, a small island north of Timor in Indonesia, used brass gongs, pigs, and (for small change / rounding out of a specific value) arrows for exchange, bridewealth, burial feasts, and “complicated financial transactions” to build large clan houses. ([3] p84-6). Brass gongs and beads were also used for bridewealth by some cultures in nearby Borneo ([8] p10).  Such gongs were used for injury compensation, bridewealth, large exchanges (memorialized in ceremony), and in peace-making payments also among the hill tribes of Siam, Burma and India ([2] p204-6, ) Brass pots and metal knives, axes, and hoes formed the largest part of the bridewealth of the Lakhers and Maras of the Lushai hills in India. ([8] p207). 

Most peoples indigenous to the Pacific Coast of America used shell beads as treasure or money (for example the Yurok).  Among the few who also used copper were the Kwakiutl, who fished for abundant salmon and lived in villages in the Pacific Northwest. They used blankets and flat copper sheets (similar in form and function to hack-silver) for bridewealth, tribute, distributions to followers (roughly similar to wages paid to soldiers and laborers), and distributions at funeral ceremonies.  According to the anthropologist Frans Boas who observed them, these copper sheets served the “same function as a high-denomination bank note for us [early 20th century European-Americans].” ([2] p15, 300)

In their elaborate marketplaces, Aztecs used as payment gold dust measured out by volume from bone vials:

The moment we arrived in this immense market, we were perfectly astonished at the vast numbers of people, the profusion of merchandise which was exposed for sale, and at the good police and order that reigned throughout…instruments of brass, copper, and tin [and] gold dust as it is dug out of the mines, which was exposed to sale in tubes made of the bones of large geese…The value of these tubes of gold was estimated according to their length and thickness, and were taken for exchange, for instance, for so many mantles [of] cacao nuts, slaves or other merchandise.[5]

The Aztecs also used metal money modeled on hoes (or axes) as a medium of exchange, along with cocoa beans for small change. Gold dust was also used for purchases in some parts of Siam.[3 p93].

Why did such a wide variety of cultures use, and in some cases independently invent, the use of copper and its alloys, silver, and/or gold as a store of and medium for the transfer of value?  Copper, silver, and gold have the same outermost electron cloud, giving them similar electrical, chemical, and material properties, such as resistance to oxidization -- albeit due to subtleties in this cloud gold resists oxidization better than silver, which resists it better than copper. These properties enhance their durability and divisibility. Their malleability and low melting point allow them to be recycled and formed into desired shapes and makes them readily divisible.  Heating the metals hot enough to glow, an ancient low-tech form of spectroscopy, allows the metals to be distinguished from fraudulent materials.  (We know now that the electron cloud around each atom gives, unique for each element, off a pattern of light at unique wavelengths, seen by the eye as a unique color).


Metal stamped or cast with the brand of a highly reputable mint – often highly reputable because they were a large creditor that consistently accepted the coin in satisfaction of obligations -- had a significant, though not always decisive, advantage over other forms of metal money. Where the need for a fungible and divisible money that could change hands rapidly at low transaction costs was paramount, it came to displace other forms of metal money, and even significant amounts of treasure often ended up being recycled into coins. Coins could change hands in a reasonably secure manner with much less frequent need for weighing and assaying operations. Coins spread quickly, though not until modern times universally, from their origins in Greek and Chinese city-states.  In the Middle East and Europe coins were stamped; in China they were cast. 

Alongside coins grew marketplaces.  As the Aztec gold dust, Persian Gulf larins,  Burmese silver “lumps”, and many other examples too numerous to mention demonstrate, coins were not necessary for the existence of marketplaces, but they did help make them more efficient and widespread. The Greek conqueror Alexander the Great looted the treasuries of the Near East, converting low-velocity treasure to high-velocity coinage, making his soldiers and Near East tradesmen better-paid in the process. The subsequent Hellenistic, Roman, Persian,  and Arabian empires were built on such coinage, as were medieval, Renaissance, and early industrial-era European economies. The European exploration explosion was fueled by the search for precious metals and their use to trade around the globe. 

As Peter Swetz, translator of The Treviso Arithmetic observes that a favorite textbook example, the alligation problem, which involved the mixing of substances in various ratios, was exemplified by the reminting of coins. “[T]he value of money [coin] was not determined by its face value, but rather its content of precious metal…throughout the sixteenth century, chapters on alligation in arithmetic books were particularly intended for German mint-masters …[and]…Italian goldsmiths.” This was not the only use of alligation – it also could be applied to compounding medicines, the mixing of wines, and to metallurgy more generally – but it was the most valuable and compelling example of the technique. Here is one of the problems as set forth for the student:

A merchant has 46 marks 7 ounces of silver in which he knows there is 7 ¼ ounces of fine silver per mark. He wishes to reduce the purity of his silver to less than half [the example also serves to warn the apprentice merchant of such sharp practices], down to 3 ½ ounces of fine silver per mark. The question asks, “how much brass must be added to accomplish this”? 

Thereafter follows multiplication and division using some Renaissance-era shortcuts suitable for this kind of problem. And voila, the minter’s coins have been successfully reduced in value (hopefully along with their stated face value – the textbook does not mention that aspect) and increased in number.

Touchstone and needles used by traditional European goldsmiths for assaying gold, silver, and copper, whether as coins or as jewelry.  Each needle presents the visual difference made by different percentage compositions of the three metals.
Outside of this western Eurasian area, however, many non-coinage forms of money persisted and forms of debt and fiat money represented by paper were invented. When paper debt-money reaches the West, with bills of exchange to send money across hostile lands and later bank notes representing vaults hopefully full of gold, we have reached a more recent period of monetary history and our minds have ventured far beyond the origins of money. We will end here.

Non-Internet References

[1] Bohannan, Paul (1959). "The Impact of money on an African subsistence economy". The Journal of Economic History. 19 (4): 491–503. 

[2] A. Hingston Quiggin, A Survey of Primitive Money: The Beginnings of Currency, Muethen & Co. Ltd., 1949

[3] Paul Einzig, Primitive Money in Its Ethnological, Historical, and Economic Aspects, Pergamon Press, 2nd ed. 1966

[4] W.B. Dickinson, “In Defense of Ring-Money as a Medium of Exchange”, The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Numismatic Society, v. 16 (April 1853)

[5]  Grierson, Philip (1977) The origins of money. London: The Athlone Press, University of London.

[6] Howard J. Erlichman, Conquest, Tribute, and Trade: The Quest for Precious Metals and the Birth of Globalization, Promethus Books 2010.  Aztec gold dust quote on p97, quoting  Bernal de Castillo in The True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain

[7] Weatherford, Jack (1997). The History of Money. Crown Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-307-55674-5

Jurors examining gold coins in a recent Trial of the Pyx. This assay and audit of the British Royal Mint has been conducted periodically since the Middle Ages. Isaac Newton and many other luminaries have been involved. It is structured much like an actual court trial, with a presiding judge, a jury of laymen, and a second jury of expert goldsmiths. It also includes the most advanced assay techniques available (today including detailed spectroscopy). The purpose of this elaborate audit and ceremony is to ensure and to communicate to outsiders that the mere local cultural form is “pure”, i.e. that the coins accurately label and embody the actual amount of the actually desired natural substance. The British love their traditions and the Trial of the Pyx continues to this day.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Conflict and collectibles among the Yurok

Until about 11,000 years ago all humans were foragers, living by hunting, gathering, or fishing.  To study human evolution, and in particular the interest of this author, the long evolution of collectibles -- non-fungible treasure and fungible money -- we must try to reconstruct the nature of our ancestral forager cultures.  The ancestors of the vast majority of currently living people lived in areas that, due to their relative ecological abundance, have for centuries or millennia since been given over to agriculture.
One possible way gather evidence about our ancestral cultures is to study what small fraction of their artifacts have been preserved by time and dug up by archaeologists. Fortunately one of the desirable features of collectibles is their durability, so that a disproportionate number of such artifacts survive. Another way is to study recent observations that travelers, missionaries, ethnologists, colonial officials, traders, and the natives themselves made and recorded about forager cultures that existed in recent  times (albeit not ancestral to the vast majority of today’s humans, but “cousins”), before these cultures were too severely disrupted by the many global waves of disease and migration since Columbus.
With extremely few exceptions,  forager cultures either did not undergo long-term recorded observation by ethnologists before severe disruption to their native institutions (e.g. most indigenous American tribes, Andaman Islanders, Ainu, west coast Australian aborigines), or lived in nutrient-poor wastelands beyond the main streams of human evolution (Kalahari desert, Australian outback, Arctic, American and Canadian Plains, etc.), living in cultures far more dispersed and mobile than is likely for the forager ancestors of most current humans. Some may have been young refugee cultures fleeing the effects of the Columbian Exchange (for example, the Pirahã may have lost some important language features common to practically all other human languages).

By the time of Columbus, the Americas were the only continents with foraging cultures living in rich ecosystems – all other rich ecosystems had been converted to agriculture (as had many, but far from all, in the Americas). Most American foragers were soon disrupted beyond recognition by the massive waves of post-Columbian diseases and immigration. The Yurok was a group of indigenous American foragers with shared language and customs. They lived in a rich dense ecosystem, yet furthest away from these biological and cultural tsunamis that had overwhelmed the rest of the post-Columbian Americas. The unique position of the Yurok and some of its neighboring language groups, especially the Hupa, and Karok or Karuk, (who occupied areas further up the Klamath River), and the Tolowa (who occupied the coast further northern into Oregon and the lowest reaches of the Rogue River) can be visualized by comparing the Yuroks’ territories (their population lived almost entirely within a few miles of the Pacific Coast and the lower Klamath River) at the end of the 19th century to the growing American railroad network.  The Pacific Northwest tribes more famous to anthropology had already been severely disrupted by the time they were studied by ethnologists.  With no ongoing contacts with white immigrants until 1849, the Yurok and Hupa did not experience substantial disruption “until much later than other tribal groups in California and the United States”. Ethnologists such as Goddard and Kroeber were able to interview Yurok and Hupa people who had living memories of a minimally disturbed forager culture, including some who still practiced much of the lifestyle.

Railroads (red) within c. 300 miles of the Pacific coast of the United States in 1890, vs. the extent of the Yurok tribe (blue) at that time. The Yurok were among the last tribes in the rich ecosystems of the American Pacific coast to succumb to the overwhelming influences of Western immigration.  As a result, recorded observations of the Yurok are almost the only ones we have of a forager people in a rich ecosystem in a nearly undisturbed and long-term equilibrium state.
The Pacific Coast of North America features uneven seasonal rain patterns that make it difficult to support early forms of agriculture.  Thus, even in nutrient-dense environments such as those populated by the Yurok , this region was dominated by forager groups.

Even though the Yurok didn’t have agriculture they did have permanent settlements due to the rich salmon fishing on the Klamath River. When they finally encountered  the post-Columbian wave of disease, immigration, and modernity in the mid 19th century (possibly also encountering some of the waves of disease that hit the Pacific Coast as early as the 18th century), almost every technology the Yurok and their indigenous neighbors had could probably have been encountered in similar form along many Eurasian coasts before the dawn of agriculture over ten thousand years ago, and perhaps even twenty or more thousand years ago.  Yurok was one of the very few such cultures, quite possibly similar to cultures that existed as long as tens of thousands of years ago, whose old customs were observed and recorded before they converted to modern law, money, and technology.

The closest 19th century railroad to the Yurok was hundreds of miles away, in contrast to the more famous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, which were much more disrupted by immigrants and their new laws before their customs were carefully observed and recorded. The Yurok were one of the very few forager cultures living in an abundant ecosystem, yet observed within recent memory of a probably largely undisturbed long-term equilibrium cultural state, and the recorded observations of this culture will almost surely remain among the very few such records.

The Yurok lived in permanent but very small villages. In 1900 their population was probably (per Kroeber) around 2,500 people living in over 50 such villages: a handful of families per hamlet.  This represented a population substantially reduced by immigrant-introduced disease. Since this is estimated to have killed off 75% of the Yurok population in the second half of the nineteenth century – compared to the 95% death rate of other indigenous Californians -- the original population may have been around 10,000.
The plurality of the Yurok diet was salmon; they also caught steelhead trout, lamprey eel, sturgeon, and candlefish on the lower Klamath River. Yurok also gathered acorns and shellfish and hunted large game (elk, deer, and sea lion).  Salmon were caught by nets, and during the height of salmon migration in temporary weirs. They were finished off with long spears.
The aboriginal territory of the Yurok people encompassed riparian lands along the lower forty miles of the Klamath River, from its confluence with the Trinity River, its major tributary, to the Pacific Ocean. It also included coastal lands from a few miles north of the river's month south to Trinidad. … The river was their world. North, south, east, and west did not exist for them. The only directions were upriver or downriver. [Lufkin] 

Lacking animals or vehicles to ride, the Yurok often walked. But their main way to travel long distance was by canoe, in both ocean-going and river-borne forms. The two most strategic locations for the Yurok were Welkwaw, at the mouth of Klamath River, and Qu’nek, at the convergence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers.
What the Yurok could not eat during the spring and fall salmon migrations they preserved by open-pit smoking.  Food and other goods were stored in the many baskets weaved by Yurok women. Salmon smoking, combined with the other abundant food sources of the lower Klamath River and ocean environments, made their diet reliable year-round, despite the boom-or-bust nature of the salmon migrations, and let them settle in permanent and relatively dense habitations, in contrast to inland foragers, recently surviving examples of which lived in far sparser populations and generally moved once to several times per year to follow game.
The Yurok had no state, government officials, chiefs, or even clan heads. Among the highest income earners were shamans, usually elderly females, a role that might be best described in modern cultural terms as combining the role of priest with that of medical doctor. On the other hand, most important property was owned by and most important wealth transfers decide by individual adult males, generally not by females, no matter their earnings, nor by groups. These individuals sometimes owned fractional shares in some kinds of economic property, for example in customarily defined spots for salmon fishing.
Inheritances, and the minority of claims that were not simply individual, were distributed among variable groups of males defined by their kin distances to the deceased or the bride.  There were no fixed kin groups; instead “a group of kinsmen shades out … and integrates with others.” (Kroeber p392). Exogamy and endogamy were also defined this way, with respect to the variable group that was one’s particular relative kin, rather than with respect to fixed villages, clans, or any other such groups sometimes found in other forager cultures.
Forager societies in general, and indigenous Californian societies in particular, were usually quite violent, particularly where populations were more dense.  Next only to environmental nutrient density, violence was probably the main barrier to social scalability among foragers. Reducing and mitigating this violence so as to allow family and economic institutions to work was a predominant function of indigenous social institutions. Violence took every form from one-on-one to small-scale, gang-like wars, typically between small kin groups.
A leaderless and policeless social order like that of the Yurok depended more on custom and supernatural sanctions than modern legal systems do.  Yurok law contained a multitude of specific and negative taboos. The common expectation that all sides should follow customary rules and, where appropriate, customary property valuations and exchange rates, reduced negotiations and arguments, and thus reduced disputes, and thus reduced the violence that was often engendered by disputes.  “Both marriage and [injury compensation] were definite, commercial, negotiated transactions ; all property possessed a value fixed by custom, or by previous changes of ownership, but negotiations were a cause of much dispute, each side claiming as much as it dared, and usually ending in compromise.” (Quiggins p296)
The following kin had priority for inheritance of the largest pieces of property:
1.     sons, but if none
2.     brothers, but if  none
3.     brothers’ sons
Property rights included incorporeal property, often bundled with corporeal property.  For example dance outfits, often made at great labor out of deer-skin and rare woodpecker scalps, demonstrating wealth as splendor and usually passed on as heirlooms,  always came bundled with prayers and spells that only the owner of a particular dance outfit could use.
“[E]very invasion of privilege or property must be explicitly compensated”. Compensation usually arrived at by “negotiation of the interested parties and their representatives, and by them alone” – no chiefs etc., just strong custom and respect for agreements. “Revenge causes two liabilities [to be compensated in money and treasure] where one lay before.” (Kroeber p390-2).
For the purposes of customary exchanges, bridewealth, and compensation for injuries, the value of property was “either fixed by custom, or can be valued by consideration of payments made for it in previous changes of ownership.” (Kroeber p392)  Yurok law was “almost fully resolvable into claims for property”.  When faced with a judgment or agreement ending a vendetta,  if a defendant could not cough up the specified value in property, generally in the form of dentalia money and non-fungible treasure, he or she became a slave of the plaintiff (the victim or a deceased victim’s next-of-kin).
Such debt slavery was the only way a slave could be created among the Yurok, since they took no male prisoners in the small-scale, gang-like warfare in which ad-hoc kin groups and allies sometimes engaged when disputes remained unsettled. They either adopted or returned the women and children prisoners as part of peace-making settlement (which indeed was not qualitatively distinguished from the settling of smaller instances of violence). 
If a defendant in a dispute refused to either pay the agreed or adjudged compensation or submit to debt slavery, vendetta remained. The main outcomes of disputes were either continued violence, debt slavery, or (the most usual case) a final transfer of wealth that sufficiently satisfied the disputants, their kin groups, and third parties to bring an end to vendetta.
Yurok law was “almost fully resolvable into claims for property” (Kroeber 1925).  If a defendant could not pay, he or she became a slave of the defendant or of a deceased defendant’s next-of-kin.
The Yurok had at least two common kinds of procedures for settling disputes. The first was direct negotiations between the disputants, usually including kin or allies. The second was a procedure whereby each side picked two jurors, who also acted as intermediaries between the two parties, who would not meet.   The first method was more dangerous, as arguments often escalated into violence.:
 (Quiggin p294)
Among the Yurok…as typical among less specifically organized people, the ‘court’ was less definite, but it was nevertheless there. An aggrieved Yurok who felt he had a legitimate claim engaged the legal services of two nonrelatives from a community other than his own. The defendant then did likewise. These men were called ‘crossers’; they crossed back and forth between the litigants.  The principals to the dispute ordinarily did not face each other during the course of the action.  After hearing all that each side had to offer in evidence and pleading as to the relevant substantive law, the crossers rendered a decision for damages according to a well-established scale that was known to all. For their footwork and efforts each [crosser] received a piece of shell currency called a ‘moccasin’.  (Hoebel p25, citing Kroeber, ‘Yurok Law’, 22nd Intl. Congress of Americanists, 1924, p 551).
Dentalia (terk-term in the Yurok language) was a fungible form of collectible – essentially money, and called such both by early Western observers and by the Yurok themselves when they translated their language into English.  Most of the economic and legal functions of dentalia shells had been by the 20th century either take over by dollars or  obsoleted by the move to the Western legal system and the abolition of shamans and bridewealth.

Dentalia shells were counted individually or in groups of five. The value of a dentalium shell was judged by its length, longer shells being disproportionately rarer. The length of dentalia shells judged with respect to length between finger creases, or by tattoos which themselves had been made by shells of standard length. (p396).  The technique was the same among the neighboring Hupa:

As all hands and arms are not of the same length it was necessary for the man on reaching maturity to establish the values of the creases on his hand by comparison with money of known length. He had a set of lines tattooed on the inside of the forearm. These lines indicated the length of 5 shells of the several standards. This was the principal means of estimating money. The first 5 on the string were measured by holding the tip of the first shell at the thumbnail and drawing the string along the arm and noting the tattooed mark reached by the butt of the fifth shell (Goddard, 1903, p. 446).
Mr. McCann [a Hupa, a language group upstream of the Yurok, with many similar customs] “measuring dentalium shell money against tattoo marks on his forearm. Photograph by Pliny E. Goddard, Hoopa, Humboldt County, 1901 (15-2947).” Credit: Hearst Museum Berkeley.  [Source]

Collectibles served as money (fungible, divisible, and transferable wealth) or as treasure (displayable and transferable wealth). The chief collectibles of the Yurok were:

A splendid headdress featuring woodpecker scalps, from the nearby Tolowa people, 1924. [Source]
·      Size-ranked dentalia constituted the most common media for satisfying obligations, a standard counter-performance for exchanges, and as a standard of value for determining the total value of a wealth transfer, usually from custom, sometimes by negotiation, or a combination thereof, for a given situation. Dentalia made up a substantial part of nearly all, but usually less than half of most, of the value of the largest wealth transfers (shaman or doctor fees, injury compensation, and bridewealth).
·      Woodpecker scalps came in two sizes, exchanged at a 6:1 ratio.  Besides a store of value they were used to add splendor to dance headdresses and regalia.
·      Deerskins (used in dances; the very rare albino pelt was quite valuable)
·      Large blades of obsidian or flint (the larger ones, either by being rarer or harder to make, could be quite valuable)
Yurok or Karuk obsidian treasure blades displayed at the Denver Art Museum. The Yurok and their neighbors, like most other indigenous American tribes, used obsidian in practical axes, knives, and arrowheads. But they also knapped blades out of rare large pieces of obsidian and used them for wealth transfer and ceremonial display [Source]

Hupa in dance regalia made out of albino deerskin, which was very rare, and thus valuable as a collectible. [Source].  Ethnographers themselves followed the collecting instinct: most ethnographic evidence was selected in favor of the rare and alien and against the regular and normal.
An unsettled vendetta could result in a disproportionate response leading to war.  Yurok customary law made “no distinction … between murder and war.” (Kroeber p420).  War deaths and murder were settled by the same injury compensation rules (blood money).  Yurok peace settlements involved the same settlement dances and kinds of wealth transfer (albeit usually on a larger scale) as individual homicide cases,.  They did not include tribute, which meant the victors often had to pay more compensation than the vanquished.  Krober recounts one such war (p422):
Hupa arrows for fighting and hunting [Source]
“A feud of some note took place between [the villages of] Sregon and Ko’otep. When the leading man [richest man and leader of this war party – not a permanent official] lost his brother by sickness, he accused an inhabitant of [one of the small villages of] Wohtek or Wohkero of having poisoned him. The suspect was soon killed from ambush. After this a Sregon man was attacked and killed at Ko’otep, which is only a short distance from Wohtek. The act involved the people of Ko’otep, which was at that time a large village. After a time, settlement was proposed, and the two parties met at an open place below Sregon to conclude the negotiations. Each side was ready to make a customary [settlement] dance, when some one fired a shot. In the fight that ensued, a [village of] Meta ally of the Sregon people was killed. The headman of Sregon now went down river with his friends and lay in wait at an overhanging and bush bank near Serper, where the current takes boats close in to shore. When a canoe of his foes came up, he attacked it and killed four of the inmates. The feud went on for some time. Sregon, never a large village, fought, with only some aid from Meta, against Ko’otep, Wohtek, and Pekwan, but lost only 3 men to 10 of their opponents’.  The headman at Sregon was sufficiently wealthy, when settlement came, to pay for all the satisfaction he had earned [i.e. the blood money for the 11 men killed by his side]. He once said with reference to this experience in this and other feuds, that open battles often took place without anyone being killed. Somehow men are hard to hit, he philosophized: arrows have a way of flying past a human being when a hunter is sure to strike a deer at the same distance….”  (Kroeber p422)
Because dentalia was the main way to avoid violence and enslavement, win the best bride, and pay for spiritual and medical services, the Yurok in consequence had a strong desire to acquire dentalia:
They are firmly convinced that persistent thinking about money will bring it. Particularly is this believed to be true while one is engaged in any sweat-house occupation. Asaman climbs the hill to gather sweat-house wood always a meritorious practice, ... he puts his mind on dentalia. He makes himself see them along the trail or hanging from fir trees eating the leaves. ... In the sweat-house he looks until he sees more money-shells perhaps peering at him through the door. When he goes down to the river he stares into it and at last may discern a shell as large as a salmon, with gills Working like those of a fish. . . . Saying a thing with sufficient intensity and frequency was a means towards bringing it about. A man often kept calling ' I want to be rich ' or ' I wish dentalia ' perhaps weeping at the same time…(Kroeber 1925, p 41)
Tolowa man measuring a dentalia shell string “thumb to shoulder”.  [Source]
Length of shell (estimated by length between finger creases or tattoo marks that had been measured from standard shells; translated into English inches)
Shells to a string of “thumb to shoulder” length (about 27 and ½ inches)
Rough typical value of shell in c. 2010s U.S. dollars, based on c. 1900 dollar value in trade with white immigrants and internal exchange after incorporation of U.S. money
2 ½

2 5/16
2 1/8
1 7/8

The dentalia used by the Yurok and neighboring tribes came via repeated transfers from distant parts north.  Dentalia are found on the Pacific Coast above the 49th parallel.  In the waters off the Vancouver and Queen Charlotte Islands, indigenous peoples dredged live shells from a sea bottom tens of feet below the surface.  They let down long poles to which are attached pieces of wood fitted with spikes or teeth, between which the shells become fixed.” Shells harvested live have, even many decades after having been killed, a different color than the dead dentalia shells that commonly wash up on many Pacific Coast beaches. The former were valued as scarce collectibles; the latter were not, and were not used by the Yurok or their neighbors. (Quiggins, p293-4)

Dentalia shell string and Northern California elk antler purse for holding it. Probably Hupa. 1800s. [Source]
Yurok cosmology – their view of the shape and size of the universe -- was largely bounded by their personal experience and defined by the topology of the Pacific Coast and the flow of the lower Klamath River and its immediate tributaries. Dentalia were obtained from transfers down the Pacific Coast, from tribes further north, including trade in various treasures and slaves with some Pacific Northwest tribes. “They speak in their traditions of … strange but enviable peoples … who suck the flesh out of the [dentalia] univalves.”  (Kroeber p394)  As dentalia percolated down the coast, their scarcity rose and their exchange rate strengthened. “In Northern Oregon or among the Yurok a slave was worth 1 string. Among the Nootka [who harvested the live dentalia off Vancouver Island], it took 5 fathoms to buy a slave.” (Einzig p173).
Primary (net) directions of dentalia shell transfers along the two topological axes of the Yurok: south along the Pacific coast and up the Klamath River system.  The source of dentalia used by the Yurok as a fungible media for the satisfaction of obligations was far from local; the main source was probably the Vancouver Islands in British Columbia. (The long distance  of users from the source ensured unforgeable costliness, i.e. a reliably and securely constrained supply curve, a pattern repeated with many other instances of shell and stone money).
As with the kula ring of Melanesia, the net flow of specific transfers of dentalia shells followed a geographical network, in this case from a source in the distant northern Pacific Coast to sinks further south along that coast and up the Klamath River.  Many of the traditional stories of the Yurok involve dentalia.  At least one such story follows the journey of two characters along this network -- down the Pacific coast and up the Klamath River -- and how they dispense of their shells. Their dentalia are in demand in some [hamlets] (or the hamlets are friendly, and allow them to trade), and not in other ones (or they are hostile). Various payments do or do not occur as our characters take follow the main flow of dentalia up the Klamath River.  (Kroeber p397)
Two other marine shells were often used as fungible money among the indigenous peoples of western North America, even well inland, but not among coastal peoples such as the Yurok:
Hupa shaman [Source].
Other shells used as currency in the Western States included olivella and pieces of [the abalone shell] haliotis. The latter was in various denominations according to its size... The value of pieces of the same size varied according to the degree of their brilliance. There was a time when one single shell bought a horse in New Mexico. (Einzig p173) 
Haliotis shells “were traded all down the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico” (Quiggin p299)  But among the Yurok, the haliotis shell was common enough in the local environment that it was only used whole, as a pendant with minor treasure value. Olivella was also locally abundant and used liberally as an ornament, but not as substantial money or treasure. With both fungible money and non-fungible treasure, we again see the signature economics of collectibles at work: the unique interplay between supply and demand, in particular the demand for scarce supply, which distinguishes a collectible from a normal commodity.
The main kinds of Yurok obligations or deals, and the wealth transfers that satisfied them. 
Type of wealth
Shaman fees
Any kind of collectible treasure or the occasional useful good of great value (e.g. canoe), almost always including some dentalium but usually for no more than half the value. Most common treasures used in these larger wealth transfers were woodpecker scalps and large stone blades.
Injury compensation
Similar variety and frequency of items as for shaman fees
Recipient priority (p401):
1.     father of bride
2.     brothers of bride
3.     uncles of bride
Similar variety and frequency of items as for shaman fees (Quiggin p296) “There was no fixed price, for that depended on the rank and wealth of the individual, and social status depended on the amount paid.” (Kroeber, 1925, pp. 21-2). Sometimes there were dowry counter-payments, e.g. if the bride’s father was particularly wealthy.

Divorce (p402-3)
      any time at a woman’s choice, as long as her kin repays
      man must show just cause to convince her kin to repay
Repayment depended on fertility:
She died early => partial repayment
Ongoing infertility => partial repayment
Each child she bore => smaller repayment upon divorce, death, or subsequent infertility.
Usually dentalia could be used to purchase a wide variety of treasures, useful goods, fishing rights, hunting rights,  incorporeal rights (e.g. rights to say prayers and cast spells), etc. at either customary or negotiated exchange rates

Dentalia, unlike treasure, was fungible and divisible.  In consequence the values of individual pieces of treasure, expressed as the Yurok did in terms of their customary or most recent exchange rate into dentalia, could in principle have been counted, summed, and subtracted to compute a net settlement in satisfaction of two opposing obligations. In practice, the indigenous Californians lacked calculating devices for accomplishing this – they had neither any sort of abacus nor methods of algorithmic writing used in Eurasia. Because of such difficulties in computing and thus comparing the values of money and treasure, bilateral large payments (such as bridewealth and dowry in a marriage, or bilateral damages incurred in a war) that included such treasures, as they almost always did, were not net settled, but instead each side paid in full.  If two men married each others’ sisters, each paid the full bridewealth to the other (Quiggin p296). 
Property with concrete utility was also sometimes used as part of large wealth transfers, albeit far less commonly than collectibles:
·      Fishing rights
·      Hunting rights
·      Canoes (cross-river ferries, up-and-down-river polling-and-paddling, ocean-going paddling)
·      Slaves
About five percent of the population were slaves. They “entered into this condition solely through debt,  never through violence” – adult male prisoners of war were killed, with women and children returned upon settlement or adopted.  The debt was almost always incurred in a dispute settlement – if the adjudged party could not pay the amount in question, whether through dentalia or other treasures or property, they became the slave of the adjudged victim.
Fishing sites were (and to a great extent still are) considered privately owned and transferable.  Fishing rights could be loaned for a portion of the harvest. Owners of the best sites were envied “aristocrats”. (Lufkin). “Prolific eddies” were defined as discrete fishing spots by custom, which generally forbade the establishment of new locations, since these would usually degrade the fishing in current locations. A fishing spot could be individually owned, but since it usually generated more food than a family could eat, the spot was more often jointly owned in fractional shares by several men, who then used the spot in rotation.  The shares were inheritable and sellable as individual property.  (Kroeber p405)

A Yurok man fishes for salmon with a plunge net at pame-kya’-ra-m, a “usual and accustomed” fishing site on the Klamath River, California, before 1898.  [Source]
If a piece of land was less than a mile or so from rivers or coast (the main sources of the Yuroks’ food) and good hunting, it was likely to be privately owned, meaning one needed the permission of the owner to hunt on it; otherwise it was common and permissionless. Deer and elk were the principle prey – smaller game were scarce or otherwise not worth the trouble.  Special rights pertained to taking sea lions on the coast. The only punishable kind of trespassing was poaching, and poachers could be shot without incurring a blood money liability. (Kroeber p406).
A case of positive claim-rights to sea-lion flippers described by Hoebel illustrates a cycle of broken-down negotiations and revenge, culminating in a property settlement that satisfied principles and kin sufficiently to terminate the vendetta.  A certain M had a generally acknowledged hereditary claim to have handed over to him the flippers of all sea-lions taken on a certain 4-mile section of beach.  (Apparently sea lion flippers can be made into boots that grip slippery surfaces,  fishing net floats, or glue, and at least farther up the Pacific Coast flipper meat was widely considered to be great delicacy: [Source]).  A certain L allegedly killed sea-lions on the beach but kept their flippers in violation of M’s claim. A series of attack, claim, counter-attack, etc., including murder of L by M, eventually led to a settlement with L’s next-of-kin receiving the sea lion flipper claim rights that started the dispute. (Hoebel p54-55)
Yurok canoe on the Trinity River, c. 1923. [Source]
The ability to transfer wealth was crucial during many events critical to the Darwinian fitness of evolving humans, especially death (inheritance), dispute settlement, and marriage.  With the Yurok and their neighboring tribes, this wealth typically took the form of collectibles that lacked concrete use – either non-fungible treasure, which came in a variety of forms, or fungible money in the form of dentalia shells and strings of same.  The use of money and treasure in some transactions (e.g. for use mitigating violence) made it available and encouraged its use in others (e.g. trade).
Collectibles involved a unique interplay of supply and demand whereby demand was based in large part on a predictable constraint in supply.  A common way cultures met this constraint was by using collectibles that originated in a very distant region and percolated into the local region via a relatively constant stream of transfers (which could be long-distance trade, but could also be a series of transfers themselves as injury compensation or bridewealth). Collectibles flowed from relatively plentiful at the origin to relatively scarce in the region they are used as collectibles. For fungible and divisible collectibles such as dentalia shells, they worked best as money where a geographical balance was struck between sufficient scarcity for value density and sufficient abundance to allow for its divisibility and fungibility. Such a collectible could be put to best use as money in a “Goldilocks region” in between where it was overly scarce and where it was overly abundant.
Lufkin, Alan, editor. California's Salmon and Steelhead: The Struggle to Restore an Imperiled Resource, chapter 2. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991. [Link]
E. Adamson Hoebel, The Law of Primitive Man, Atheneum / Harvard University Press 1954
Kroeber, A.L., Handbook of the Indians of California, Chapter 2, as reprinted in R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple eds., The California Indians: A Sourcebook, University of California Press 1971
Kroeber, A. L., Handbook of the Indians of California , Bureau Amer. Ethn. Bull., 1925, as cited in Quiggins op. cit.

Goddard,P.E., Life and Culture of the Hupa, The University Press, 1903. [Link]
A. Hingston Quiggin, A Survey of Primitive Money, Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1949
Paul Einzig, Primtive Money, 2nd ed.,  Pergamon Press 1966.