In primitive societies, a murderer often could compensate his or her victim’s relatives with blood money, which the relatives were expected to accept in lieu of exacting violent revenge. Although the demand for some commodities tends to ebb and flow with fashion, commodities accepted as blood money tended to be goods that a tribe or people held in permanent high esteem, and these commodities often began to fill other roles of money, including as a medium of exchange.
In pre-World War II Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific, mats fulfilled the purpose of blood money. These prized mats could also compensate an injured husband, and bridegrooms received mats from the relatives of the bride. On the Fiji Islands, a single whale’s tooth, comparable in value to a big canoe, was the expected blood money for a murdered man. On the Santa Cruz Islands and Reef Islands, blood money came in the form of red feathers of the parrot Trichoglossus massena. In 1871 the murderer of a bishop paid a fine of four coils of feather money.
On the island of New Britain, northeast of New Guinea, sacred shells were strung, stored in coils, and used to fulfill many of the roles of money. The next of kin of a murdered individual received between 20 and 50 strings. Intertribal wars and feuds between individuals could be ended with the payment of these strings of sacred shells, called tambu or diwara. When an intertribal conflict came to an end, the number of people that each side lost was counted, and a balance of compensation paid to the side that lost the most members. In the Congo, cowrie shells were accepted as blood money.
In areas of Kenya, livestock met the need for blood money, and medieval Ireland also furnished instances of cows paid as blood money. In medieval Wales the murder of a king could be atoned with the payment of 1,000 cows. The murder of a Welsh tribesman (probably including women and children) cost the murderer 126 cows—120 for the murder, and 6 for the implied insult. The cows had be normal cows, bearing no more than five calves, and producing milk. It is probable that only a well-to-do man could afford this blood money. At that time a cow in Scotland was equal to 6 shillings or 72 pence, and pence was the largest denomination coin in circulation. The pence equivalent of 126 head of cattle would have been far more than an average Welsh tribesman could have marshaled, assuming that the value of cattle in Scotland and Wales was in a similar range. Otherwise coins of larger denominations would have been minted. Those who could not pay the blood money were subject to the eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth brand of justice. In medieval Sweden the fine for killing a slave was either three marks of woolen goods, or six marks of pfennige, or 4 good oxen. A slave could purchase his or her freedom for identical amounts.
Blood money was an important institution in primitive societies where no powerful state authority could avenge every wrong committed against tribal members. Acceptance of blood money was expected of tribe members as the only means of avoiding internecine warfare. Moreover, blood money was often the only thing that stood between a murderer and a sentence of execution. Blood money commodities tended to be hoarded because nobody knew when they would need them, and trying to purchase them after the commission of a murder was not always easy. Because it was payment for a human life, blood money tended to be paid in commodities most highly prized by a society. To settle blood disputes between tribes, common units of blood money evolved that facilitated other types of intertribal exchange. Blood money commodities, always in demand and evolving a store of value, represent the emergence of money at its most embryonic point.