The tusks of elephants are composed of ivory, a substance much in demand throughout history for its durability and beauty. The demand for ivory has nearly become the downfall of elephants, which have been decimated in large numbers for the sake of their tusks.
The role that ivory has played as money is rather limited in spite of the fact that its aesthetic qualities and durability give it some of the same attraction as precious metals. In mountain villages on the island of Ili Mandriri in the Indonesian archipelago islanders used ivory as a store of value and mark of social status. An individual’s social standing was a function of the number and size of ivory tusks that he or she owned. It appears that not too far in the murky past ivory also served as a medium of exchange. In the post–World War II era the islanders stilled used ivory as the main form of bride money.
Before the arrival of Arabian traders, tribes in Uganda cut ivory discs that served as a favored form of money. Although anyone was free to cut ivory discs, no one could kill elephants or possess ivory without the king’s permission, and cutting ivory discs required special skills possessed only by a few people. In effect, the king had a monopoly on the supply of ivory discs.
During the time of German colonization of equatorial Africa fines were set in ivory, eventually leaving the colonial administration with a large stockpile. There is also evidence of an ivory monetary unit in Gabon. In Loma a 100-pound chunk of ivory represented a monetary unit for large transactions, but it was a fictitious unit and in reality represented an assortment of European goods. In the Nama tribe of southwest Africa, ivory represented a stable export, and acted as a medium of exchange.
Ivory has functioned as money primarily in Africa. Famous African explorer John H. Speke, who discovered Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile, mentioned the use of ivory as money in his book The Discovery of the Source of the Nile. Henry M. Stanley in his book In Darkest Africa tells of treasuries of ivory and his own use of ivory to pay for services rendered by tribes. He also wrote of raiding parties that captured slaves mainly to exchange the slaves for ivory. Ivory might have acted as money on a grander scale if it had commanded more religious significance for the Africans, or if the foreign ivory demand had not been so high relative to the domestic demand.