D. Graham Burnett at Cabinet:
Back to the sperm whale teeth. Were they money or not? They could certainly have that feel to a sandalwood trader trying to acquire a lucrative cargo of the fragrant lumber. But it didn’t take long before even those most nuts-and-bolts anthropologists noticed all kinds of un-money-like attributes of the local currency. You couldn’t quite count on your ivories to do what you thought they would do under all circumstances. That troubling randomizer of human behavior—meaning—seemed to inhere in the teeth, and generate various bizarre misunderstandings and conditions. There seemed surfeits of signification in the things—excess powers and unpredictable deficiencies.
For instance, while it was clear that some teeth (the larger, older, amber-hued specimens) received special attention (occupying pride of place in family treasuries and occasioning tenderly solicitous polishing), it did not follow, as one might expect, that such noble tabua traded hands at a consistent premium. Rather, for the preponderance of occasions in which the presentation of a tooth was required by custom (the building of a house, a diplomatic envoy, the death of an elder), it appeared that any tooth would do. Moreover, the “market” in teeth often behaved in what appeared a most irrational fashion. How could it be that a tooth acquired for less than one pound sterling in town could, a short distance away, secure a monster porker that would retail locally for ten? Where were the arbitrageurs?