Until the eve of World War II, pigs played the role of money in the New Hebrides. The pig standard of New
Hebrides was more than another livestock standard that combined a ready source of food with a store of wealth. In the New Hebrides boar hogs with curved tusks conferred status in a unique economic, political, and social system. On some islands, neutered pigs qualified, if they also grew tusks. The length of the tusks was the crucial quality determining the value of pigs, rather than weight or condition of the animal. Islanders
removed two teeth from the upper jaw, causing the tusks to grow longer, adding to the pig’s value.
The special role of pigs as sacrificial victims at feasts raised them above the category of a common source of food, endowing them with a special cultural significance that substantially increased their value as a store of wealth. Islanders gauged a man’s wealth by the number of boars in his possession, which enabled him to make handsome contributions to sacrifices and feasts. They were too valuable for the small change of everyday transactions, which were facilitated by other exotic forms of money, such as mats, shells, quartzite stone money, and feathers. Pigs were used to buy land, pay workers (including magicians, dancers, and mortuary officials), purchase brides, and pay blood money, ransoms, and fines for violating taboos. Debts were defined in terms of pigs, and a large share of the murders on the islands arose from disputes over pig debts.
The social life of the islanders was dominated by men’s clubs or secret societies. To purchase a bride, gain admission to a secret society, or earn promotion within a secret society, young men borrowed pigs, probably from relatives. A young man already in a secret society borrowed pigs from fellow members. A person acquired power by being able to loan pigs to those who needed to borrow them. Interest on debts was paid
not by returning to the lender more pigs than were originally borrowed, but by returning pigs with longer tusks.
Because pigs became more valuable as their tusks grew, interest on debts was paid by returning to the lender pigs with longer tusks. The rate of interest was determined by the growth of the tusks.
In the 1930s, pigs with quarter-circle tusks fetched 4 British pounds, half-circle tusks 6 pounds, three-quarter-circle tusks between 10 and 15 pounds, and full-circle tusks over 30 pounds. Pigs with tusks
extending beyond one circle, perhaps a circle and a half, commanded premium prices.
The pig standard of New Hebrides shows that cultural and religious factors can outweigh utilitarian factors in raising up a commodity to serve as a medium of exchange in universal demand. Livestock standards are founded in the reality that people must find food on a daily basis, rendering them receptive to accepting edible livestock in exchange. Having a large reservoir of livestock, as a source of food, however, can become a
status symbol, further enforcing the value of the livestock as money. In the New Hebrides, the length of a pig’s tusks bore no relationship to its food value, but the tusks became a status symbol that acquired a cultural life of its own, making tusk length the lynch pin of the monetary standard.
Cheesman, Evelyn. 1933. Backwaters of the Savage South Seas.
Einzig, Paul. 1966. Primitive Money.
Humphreys, C. R. 1983. The Southern New Hebrides: An Ethnological Record.