Beetle Legs

Money Monday

Money Monday is a weekly series of short posts exploring a wide range of money-related topics. Some articles introduce unusual forms of money well-known to anthropologists and archaeologists, while others examine money usage, contemporary and historical.

A map showing Mussau Island.
Mussau Island is part of Papua New Guinea.
Mussau, or the St Matthias Islands are most famous as a protected habitat for birds, or an Endemic Bird Area. Among the species that nest on Mussau is the Melanesian Megapode, which I could not resist mentioning simply because of its entertaining name. However, for people interested in money, the St Mattias Islands have another interesting feature, they are the alleged home of a curious form of money: strings of beetle legs.

Unfortunately, ethnographic data on the beetle leg strings is sparse, and the primary source is in German: Ergebnisse der Südsee-Expedition. II. Ethnographie: B. Mikronesien. Bd. 4. This source is a report on Georg Thilenius' South Seas Expendition (1908-1910). The original is referenced in both Mary Alice Hingston Quiggin's A Survey of Primitive Money and in Einzig's Primitive Money - the latter also cites Furness' book on the stone money of Yap. A translation exists of the report on Thilenius' expedition, but I have been unable to find it in public online databases or in the HSE library. Translations exist in the Human Relations Area Files, but I have never been affiliated with an institution that has access to that incredible treasure trove of material.

A string of iridescent beetle legs
A string of iridescent beetle legs. Image courtesy of the Money Museum.
Whether these strings of beetle legs were really used as money by people living in the St. Matthias Islands remains a matter of debate. The Money Museum has at least one string, and describes the artefact thus:

Whether such chains of beetles' legs were ever actually used as money on St Matthew's Island is controversial; there are descriptions of the island by ethnographers dating to the first years of the 20th century, but they nowhere mention the use of strings of beetles' legs as money, though they do say that they were used as necklaces and bracelets. It seems to have been the colonialists who liked the strings of beetles' legs so much that they paid high prices for them – in cash. In German New Guinea, to which the St Matthew's Islands belonged until 1914, the currency was the German mark. The Germans paid one mark for 2 fathoms of beetles' legs, which on St. Matthews was the price of a chicken. So the strings changed owners, but they were not passed on yet again, so they were not in circulation. Hence they can not be called currency. Other forms of currency were used in the islands, especially for paying bride-prices and concluding peace treaties – for example strings of discs made of seashells, or else mats, cloth, weapons, baskets, jewelry or pigs.

The museum claims that ethnographers do not describe the strings as money, but both Einzig and Quiggins cite Thilenius alongside descriptions of these objects as money. Without reading the German reports, I cannot make any pronouncement one way or the other, but beetle legs seem a rather fragile medium of exchange, even when compared with shell monies and teabrick monies. They certainly are beautiful though.