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Researchers Say Chumash Tribe May Have Been First To Use A Form Of Money In The Americas

(Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)
Reseacher Lynn Gamle has been studying beads like these from the collection at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

When it comes to currency, we of course think of dollars.  But, historically, the region's earliest residents, the Chumash Indians, used shell beads as currency.  Now, a UC Santa Barbara researcher says there is evidence that the Chumash were using beads much longer than commonly believed.  They may have been the first to use a form of money anywhere in the Americas.

Dr. Lynn Gamble is an archaeologist, and longtime researcher with UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Anthropology.

Gamble says they have found evidence that certain type of shell beads were more than decoration.  Like currency we used today, they had a standardized look.  And, the researcher says what we also know now is that like cash, the beads weren’t just used for essentials like food, but also for things people wanted.

It’s been generally accepted that the Chumash have been using shell beads as currency for at least 800 years.  Gamble says she’s going out on a bit of a limb, but has found evidence that it actually goes back two thousand years.

Gamble says if thae theory holds true, it might be the first example of the use of money anywhere in the Americas. 

The researcher says this also shows some common beliefs about hunter-gathers might be wrong.  Many researchers believe that in prehistory, agricultural societies were more sophisticated, because they required trading, and a so-called commercial society.  Gamble says this challenges that common assumption, and that hunter-gathers also had complex forms of trading.

Gamble notes that shell beads have been made in California for more than 10,000 years, but mostly as decoration.  Widespread evidence of tools used to make the beads has been found in the northern Channel Islands.

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