The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Conquistadors, Vikings, Indians, Skraelings, and Cloth Money?

The previous post made comments about the British Museum getting it wrong as regards money in the Americas. I was poking at that largely for comedic effect, and as a way to start talking about the introduction of Spanish beads into the Americas, but it's not quite accurate.

The shell beads that I discuss are known to have been in use some time after AD 1000, in which case the display was correct. There is a fair amount of debate as to when the shell beads became used as money, and even which types of shell beads were used as money. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that the trade networks found by the Europeans when they arrived may have been the latest form of a fluid system that had been evolving for nearly 2,000 years. The developments were regional - the people of California had no idea what the people in Colorado were up to, nor did the people in Colorado know what the people in Florida were doing, etc. - but there were common developments in many areas with the development of socio-political complexity, and the rise of exchange relationships (though it should be noted that there were other parts of North America where the people remained as nomadic bands, and yet others where they became sedentary farmers, there was alot of variation).

Myself, I am persuaded by the arguments of archaeologists who hold that there was some form of semi-formalized exchange, probably using beads as the medium of exchange, prior to AD 1000. However, the data is ambiguous, and my view is in the minority. However, I would like to point to similarities that I have noted in two ethnohistoric sources (historic records that describe contact with prehistoric people) to illustrate my point.

The journals of Spanish explorers into California and Florida describe the use of "pacification gifts" in order to gain favor with the native peoples that they encountered. The Spanish brought a large number of items - tools, clothing, coins, etc. - but while the Native Americans were happy to take other items, they really wanted the beads. As noted in yesterdays post, this is because the beads fit in with existing economic practices, and were therefore more immediately valuable to the native peoples than the other items. The Spanish often noted their surprise at the popularity of the beads, and made their confusion known.

The Vinland Sagas describe viking attempts to establish a colony in North America. The sagas are Norse historic epics, usually written in a way that is not quite larger-than life. Usually, they are the stories of heroic figures, and as such can be expected to be somewhat "modified" from reality. However, historians have long used them as a source - provided that one doesn't take everything literally, they can be of great value.

At any rate, the Vinland Sagas tell of encounters with native North Americans, whom the Vikings called Skraelings (after their name for the native peoples of Greenland). The Skraelings established a complicated relationship with the Vikings - sometimes trading, sometimes fighting. When trading, the Skraelings routinely requested fragments of died cloth, sometimes turning down objects that the Vikings thought were more valuable in favor of the cloth.

The similarity here is rather striking - utilitarian items, some of them of great use, turned down in favor of a rather odd and cheap bauble. This implies that the bauble, whether a bead or a piece of cloth, somehow fit into the existing native culture in a way that the other items couldn't.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. I suspect that the cloth served a purpose in eastern Canada ca. AD 1000 similar to what the beads served in California ca. AD 1800. I think we may be seeing a native form of money here.

Now, it should be said that my evidence is not particularly strong. The cloth may have served some other type of use, and the similarities between it and the beads are superficial. But I am struck by the similarities nonetheless, and I think that this may be early evidence for a type of North American money.


Anonymous said...

Some things never change.

1) *Nobody* to this day knows what the people in Florida are doing.

2) Many people will still give up "an arm & a leg" for small pieces of colored cloth. Just go to the beach on a hot day to witness said cloth pieces.

Anthroslug said...

1) Yup.

2) Yeah, but at least now we know how they're using it. It still doesn't make any sense, though.