The "mutisalah problem" is a case of blind men and an elephant. In Nusa Tenggara Timur and Timor (in the Indonesian archipelago) small opaque red and orange beads are heirlooms among the native peoples of the islands. Collectively, they are called mutisalah ("false pearl"), but no one bead is a mutisalah. There are three principal types:

  1. Mutitanah ("earth beads" from their red color) are drawn Indo-Pacific beads used as heirlooms among the commoners. Lower class boys must secure them (they are not terribly expensive) and give them to their brides at weddings.
  2. Mutibata ("brick bead," from their orange color) are also drawn Indo-Pacific beads and though more expensive than the mutitanah serve the same function
  3. Mutiraja ("king's beads," from their social status) are worn only by the princely classes (commoners cannot even touch them) and are brought as bridewealth to the wedding. They are wound beads with significant lead contents and are very expensive, a string being worth a water buffalo ($200 to $250 in 1992).

We know now that the wound Mutiraja are Chinese, along with other colors collectively called "coil beads." They probably got to these islands when the Chinese first began direct trading there (Chau Ju-kwa described these islands briefly in 1225), after having obtained their main product, sandalwood, through Javanese middlemen for centuries. The drawn beads were part of the industry started a couple centuries B.C. at Arikamedu, India. They were likely made in Southeast Asia, many of them probably at Srivijaya/Palembang. While they are actually older than the coil beads, they are much more common.



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