Massive Tolai Currency Ring, Bismark Archipelago, New Britain
Sea snail shells, fiber
diameter 39 3/8in (100cm)
Private Collection, Honolulu, Hawaii
According to Aufderheide (2009: p. 150), 'For reasons unknown to us, the Melanesian people now given the name Tolai (the Gunantuna of the early authors) are believed to have migrated from central and southern New Ireland to the Gazelle Peninsula, driving the local Baining people into the mountains and settling on the northern shores of the peninsula and on the Duke of York Islands.
The men belonged to two secret societies: Iniet and Dukduk. The former is famous for its initiation figurines made of chalk or tuff and its wooden and usually openwork initiation dance accessories; the second for its remarkable conical fiber masks. These groups regulate social life through a system in which the initiated men are the custodians of fundamental secrets and incarnate the living resources of the community. The young men enter one society or the other and rise up through the ranks. Promotion to a higher rank can be costly and in some cases involves learning mask-making techniques. Among the Tolai, payment is made in small white shells (a sea snail of the genus Nassa) threaded by hundreds on long strings of rattan that are stored and presented in rolls called tabu (or tamba). This form of payment is essential to the social structure, because the Tolai have constructed a "commercial" society in which everything of any importance is bough, sold or rented. But apart from establishing social status, the ultimate aim of accumulating shell money for a Tolai is the public distribution of tabu during funeral ceremonies. The spirit's access to the world of the ancestors depends on its wealth in tabu.'