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Beads for the Savages

It's an old story. When you meet "barbarians," you hand them a string of beads as a token of friendship. The Vikings brought beads to America and on the first day Columbus landed he wrote, [I] gave to some of them red caps and to others glass beads which they hung on their necks, and many other things of slight value, in which they took great pleasure. The people he met had never seen glass, but they knew what to do with the beads.

It continues today. A PBS "Nova" show (10 December 1985) filmed the first peaceful contact of outsiders with the Waorani of Ecuador. The outsiders gave them beads. The Waorani received them with delight.

The idea permeates the popular media. A "Far Side" cartoon by Gary Larson shows an explorer on a tropical shore being approached by a line of men carrying briefcases. The caption reads, Wellington held out some beads and other trinkets, but the islanders had sent their fiercest lawyers - some of whom were chanting, 'Sue him. Sue him.' Well, it doesn't always work.

And what if strangers visited us? A "Ziggy" panel shows two space aliens landing and saying to the little guy, See? Nice, bright shiny beads for that yucky nasty black oozy stuff in your ground. Hmmm. I wonder if Texaco ever tried that.

New materials are immediately made into beads. Early metals and synthetic materials and more recently plastic and aluminum were first used as beads. It will probably be true in the future, where no man has gone before. In the To Thy Own Self Be True episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," Data looses his memory. He unknowingly brings a radioactive metal into a Baronian village on a distant planet. The blacksmith buys the metal and immediately turns it into pendants. They poison the village until Data regains his memory and sets everything right.

Related to the initial encounter is the later use of beads. As Marlowe arrives in the Congo at the opening of the movie version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, an over-voice intones, Beads - the local currency.

For the opening of trade in the Americas order:
Beads and the Discovery of the New World.

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