Shells, not pearls, were the real prize in traditional Aboriginal culture

The only pearl discovered in Indigenous archaeology was apparently spat into a rubbish pile; the shells, on the other hand, were highly prized and traded across the country.

Pearl shell continues to play an important role in Aboriginal culture in the north-west of Australia, and the history of Indigenous trade may reveal an overlooked continental economy prior to European colonization.

These are some of the stories uncovered by Curious Kimberley's investigation of traditional Indigenous pearling.

Kerry Holland's mother had visited Broome in the 1950s and recounted how strongly the European-Australian pearling industry had shaped the town.

"In the light of our increasing insights into Indigenous culture, it made me think back to that time and wonder," Ms Holland said.

The large Pinctada maxima shell was not just more highly valued than pearls, it was one of the most commonly traded items in pre-European Australia, according to WA Museum archaeologist and assistant curator Annie Carson.

"People who have researched pearl shell, and tracking where Kimberley pearl shell has ended up, have argued that they were the most widely traded class of cultural objects in Australia," she said.

Despite not preserving well in many archaeological sites, pearl shell from the Kimberley region has been found in western Queensland, South Australia, central Australia and southern parts of WA.

But there is only one archaeological record of the pearl itself.

"We only know in Australia of one dated pearl," Ms Carson said.

"A tiny, tiny Pinctada albina pearl — it's only about five millimetres in diameter."

It was found in a layer of discarded shells in a north Kimberley coastal rock shelter dated to be 2,000 years old.

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