by Jo Tumbe Mangi

“I kept on showing them steel, beads, and cloth; but they always waved them away. One fairly old man showed me a tiny cowrie shell worn with the age of generations, and with an upward tilt of the head and a questioning look he asked me if I had any of these things. We had not… “(Hides 1936:82)

This was one of Hides’ first observations upon his encounter with the Huli people in 1935. The Huli desire for both cowrie and pearl shells is clearly illustrated in what they preferred for payment from later Government patrols. While Casey (Tari Patrol Report No. 1 ,1952:43) states as a prelude to his ethnographic discussion of the Huli that the natives can ‘ be termed ‘trade hungry’ there is little doubt in what they actually wanted because he goes on to mention in his dairy entry of 12th of November 1952 that:

“Food being purchased with pieces of pearl shell – the shell broken in the airdrop being further shattered to get the pieces of the required sizes. Much fewer natives in since girigiri completed [sic]… Purchase of food with chits of various value being tried but they are generally not impressed.”

Indeed, some of the people went further to steal these much coveted items. Sinclair (Tari Patrol Report No.2 of 1955/56:4-5) writes of an incident at Wabi near Koroba where:
“…the store had been broken into and about 30 pounds of girigiri shells left here last year had been stolen. Other items were left intact. A total of three pigs paid in compensation.” At this time it is apparent that shells were rare and a much sought after item.

Pearl Shells
Pearl shells (see above photo), hale pange, appear to have been quite a scarce item and were very valuable in traditional Huli society. While it was keenly sought after only the important men ever owned one or more and they were the focus of envy of everyone in the hameigini. The same appears to have been the case for Wage, Enga, and Ipili. For the former “only an important man owned a piece of pearl shell, which then cost at least one big pig” (Meggitt 1956: 103). The price of pearl shell seems to have increased as it went from the Wage to the Ipili from one pig to two big pigs (Meggitt 1957:40). For the Huli the value is somewhat reflected in the statement made by one of the informants, Mulugu Gawa.
“If there was a fight and a hale pange got broken, the hale pange would be compensated for separately when the fighting stopped. If all members of one family owned hale pange they were considered rich.”

Nowadays, it is common sight to come across wearing hale pange that were broken but sewn together by drilling on break and held together with strings. Sinclair (Tari Patrol Report No 2 1955:56) noted a similar pattern for the Duna: ‘Mother of pearl has great value and is the most highly prized trade item’.

Shells that entered into Huli were through payments other than yole (trade). Only a small amount seems to have come in from the Obena area through yole because as the informant, Pokoraiya Mina, claimed: “From the Obena area hale pange was rare and was only given to us as part of bride price payment or as part of some indemnity or service fees for such things as magic. If they sold it to us it cost a very big pig, sometimes two big pigs.”

Cowrie Shells

Cowrie shells, tange, appear to have also been scarce. In the early photographs of Hides (1936) only the chief, “Besoso”, has a necklace of tange. Glasse’s ( 1968) photos show that even small children have tange necklaces. Like pearl shell, cowrie shells seem to have come in from both the Duguba and the Obena areas.

The Huli differentiate two types of cowrie shells, Duguba or Hewa tange and Taro tange. They claim that Duguba or Hewa tange came up from the Duguba area while the Taro tange came in from the Obena areas. Taro tange are characterised by lumps on the sides of the shells. Duguba or hewa tange have smooth sides. Duguba or Hewa tange has been identified as Cyprea annulus and Taro tange has been identified as Cypraea moneta (Linnaeus) (See Hinton: n.d.:13). While the Huli differentiate the two varieties of shells it was very hard to establish whether they actually came in from the areas that they are claimed to have come from. While these differentiations are made these seems to have been no apparent effect on the values attributed to them. All the shells were worth the same. While discussing tange it must be pointed out that cowrie shells play an important role in Huli transactions. Casey (Tari Patrol Report No. 1 1952:43) noted that:
“… girigiri has the most convertible value. Bride-price, ‘mako’ payments [sic], purchase of pigs, and other items are all carried out, in a greater or lesser degree, using this medium.”

(This extract is from a thesis by Jo Tumbe Mangi, Yole: A Study of Traditional Huli Trade. in full requirement for the degree of Masters of Arts in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology: University of Papua New Guinea. 1988. pp. 55-57).

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