Indigenous Californians May Have Had Their Own Currency 2,000 Years Ago

Wall Street may be the epicenter of the modern global economy, but new research suggests that money was already in circulation among indigenous Californians some 2,000 years ago.

Appearing in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, the study pushes back the date for the earliest use of currency in the Americas by more than 1,000 years, and names a native group called the Chumash as the developers of the continent’s first-ever monetary trading system.

Until now, it had been as‌sumed that the Chumash – who populated the coast of southern California – began using beads as a form of currency around 800 years ago. This presumption is based on the fact that a certain type of highly standardized bead, known as a cupped bead, appears in great quantities in the archaeological records around that time.

When the first Europeans reached what is now California, they described their encounters with the Chumash, some of whom adorned themselves in strings of these beads, which they could remove in order to make purchases – like an ostentatious prototype of a wallet. Based on these ethnographic reports, anthropologists have come to understand that the Chumash were probably the first people in the region to develop currency, despite the fact that they were hunter-gatherers.

Chumash cupped beads, produced in the period after the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Image courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

In a statement, study author Lynn Gamble explained that “right around early European contact, the California Indians were trading for many types of goods, including perishable foods. The use of shell beads no doubt greatly facilitated this wide network of exchange.” 

However, by reviewing data from a vast number of archaeological digs throughout California, Gamble finds evidence that a different type of bead, called a saucer bead, was probably being traded for goods long before the development of cupped beads. Made from the shell of the purple olivella sea snail, these beads featured uniformly ground edges, making them just as standardized as cupped beads.

According to Gamble, shell beads were generally used either for currency or for adornment in antiquity, yet the challenge for archaeologists lies in determining which of these categories their finds fall into. To help with this, she has developed a set of criteria that can be used to distinguish between currency beads and decorative beads.

Currency beads, Gamble says, are always highly standardized and require a significant amount of labor to produce, while also being widely distributed. Decorative beads, meanwhile, tend to be larger and more eye-catching, as well as less labor-intensive and more individual in nature.

A Chumash kit for manufacturing shell beads. Image courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

A review of the archaeological records indicates that saucer beads were widespread throughout California around 2,000 years ago, suggesting that the Chumash trading networks were already sizable at this time. Significantly, a large number of these beads were found at a burial site in the San Francisco Bay area, which has been dated to 388 AD.

Researchers were able to use the isotope signature of these shell beads to trace them back to the Chumash homeland of southern California, indicating that their currency was probably being accepted well beyond their territory at the time of the burial.

Summing up her findings, Gamble explained that “if the Chumash were using beads as money 2,000 years ago, this changes our thinking of hunter-gatherers and sociopolitical and economic complexity. This may be the first example of the use of money anywhere in the Americas at this time.” 

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