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Huli Tribesman

Discover | Monita Roughsedge

Trading Treasures

Beauty, Wealth & Nature in the South Pacific

You know what it’s like; you’ve fallen in love with those gorgeous drop earrings but you’re just not sure if they’ll match the red dress….. You’re thinking of getting him a special ring for his birthday but will he actually wear it? Since time began, we have all enjoyed adding a little jewellery to dress up our outfits but most often, choosing the right piece to wear or to give as a gift has caused at least a little anguish. Will it match? Will they like it?

For the traditional people of the Pacific Islands jewellery has been much more than simple decoration and selecting the right piece for the occasion is not just important, it’s vital!

For thousands of years, traditional Pacific Islanders have adorned their bodies with an array of exquisite jewellery, masterfully created using only elements found within their natural environment. Be it for a harvest celebration, a spiritual festival or a ritual ceremony, choosing the correct item of jewellery to wear in order to convey the correct message was a crucial part of the event. Their jewellery served as both physical and symbolic protection, as a way of displaying wealth and status and as a means of communicating the social position of the wearer, while at the same time keeping up aesthetic appearances. Well, we all want to look our best!

It all began around 40,000 years ago when groups of voyagers from South East Asia, Oceania and East Africa began to settle in what’s now known as the Pacific Islands – namely Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. The new settlers traversed the islands, creating new homes and developing new livelihoods for themselves and their families.

With several hundred different languages and as many cultures, there nevertheless remained an underlying unity and common approach to life’s necessities. Over mountain ranges and across seas, many were in frequent contact with each other, sharing ideas, marriage, warfare and of course, trade.

Diverse geography meant a wealth of diverse nature – the exquisite plant and bird life of the highlands could not be found on the coastal shores where there was instead an abundance of highly decorative seashells, which also varied from place to place. These naturally beautiful objects became highly valued and in turn, used for trade – Five red feathers for a handful of cowrie shells? I’ll throw in a pig if you add a couple of pearl shells – You’ve got a deal!


The traditional people of the Pacific had an inherent, spiritual connection with their land and surrounding seas and innately understood the intrinsic beauty and energy of the shells, feathers, stones and other natural objects they collected and traded.

It made no sense to simply hoard these natural treasures; they were too beautiful to hide away. And so they created lavish jewellery items that not only enhanced the appearance of the wearer but also communicated complex messages to all who viewed them.

Certain items functioned as symbols of rank and leadership. In the Western Solomon Islands, the bakiha– a decorative clamshell ring, worn as a kind of necklace, was so treasured that only chiefs were allowed to wear it, and only on special occasions. In Vanuatu, circular boar tusks obtained from the ritual killing of highly valuable pigs were sported as a mark of status. And in New Guinea, the warrior men of the Wanigela tribe wore a complex headdress, incorporating hornbill beaks, to symbolise a battle won.

But not all jewellery was reserved for gallant men. If a woman in the Torres Strait Islands wanted to let people know she had found her husband-to-be, she would slip on a particular shell pendant, which would immediately get the message across.

Choosing the right flowers and leaves to wear in your hair could protect against unwanted sorcery and some people in the Solomon Islands even wore small shell ornaments as charms to help increase their wealth in shell money itself!

From commerce to costume, it’s easy to see why these traded treasures of the Pacific Islands can be seen as either the most expressive of jewellery or the most decorative form of currency!