In recent years, a number of ammonite pendants, similar to the one in Fig. 1, have been offered by tribal art dealers. As scientific objects, they offer the interest all fossils – a chance to study the tangible remains of ancient life. Being among the more abundant of fossil types, ammonites normally wouldn’t excite major paleontological interest. However, the relatively unexplored locality from which these ammonites come, and the unfamiliar use to which they are put, call for a closer look.
They are reportedly from the Dani – a people from the central highlands of Irian Jaya (the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea) – and the methods and materials used in their construction support this attribution. Surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, these highlands were largely isolated from the outside world until the 1930s, when passing airmen spotted densely clustered villages and cultivated fields in the river valleys. Anthropologists were quick to realise the importance of this enduring Neolithic culture, and among the works published on the Dani were the book Gardens of War and its accompanying film Dead Birds (Gardner & Heider 1968), which remain classic studies of social violence. These investigations emphasised the ritualised nature of Dani warfare, during which the normally unadorned men would dress in elaborate costumes decorated with cassowary feathers, boar tusks and bailer shells.
Scholarly interest soon translated into artistic interest and tribal collectors began turning their attention to Dani ornaments, which now appear on the market with increasing regularity. Because the materials available to the Dani in their isolated location were limited, their artistic repertoire was too, and students of their art quickly learn to recognise it. This is why the ammonite pendants pose such a mystery – they fall outside that familiar repertoire.