Paying With Shells: Cowrie Shell Money Is One of the Oldest Currencies Still Collected Today
Shell money is a form of currency that was used in various parts of the world, including Asia, Africa, and Oceania. This type of money makes use of a type of marine snail known as cowrie and therefore is known also as cowrie shell money. In some parts of the world shell money served as currency up until the 19th/20th century. While shell money is no longer used today as currency, it continues to be produced and made into ornamental costumes or headdresses.
How is Cowrie Shell Money Collected?
Shell money is made using a specific species of cowrie known as the money cowrie ( C. moneta ). These marine snails are commonly found in the coastal waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and therefore were used as currency by the peoples who had access to them. The harvesting and processing of the cowries differed according to region.
Cowrie shells, to be used as shell money, are collected and laid out to dry. ( eqroy / Adobe)
In the Maldives, for instance, mats woven from coconut leaves would be placed on the surface of the water. After the mats are covered by the cowries, they would be removed from the water, and left on the beaches to dry.
The cowries may be used as currency once the shells are completely dried out. In other places, such as the Solomon Islands , the cowries need to be further processed. The transformation of the shells into currency includes such steps as breaking them into smaller pieces, drilling a hole into each piece, and stringing them together.
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The cowrie shells are boiled to bring out their color and holes are drilled for stringing. ( Ogichobanov / Adobe)
The Use of Shell Money
The use of shell money is believed to date back all the way to the Neolithic period . There is, however, debate whether these archaeological cowries were indeed used as currency or functioned as ornaments. It has been claimed that shell money was used by the Chinese as early as the end of the Neolithic period. Shell money continued to be used as currency during the dynastic period , though changes occurred due to necessity. By the end of the Shang Dynasty , shell-shaped money was being produced in the north. As cowries were not so easily found in the north people replaced it with shells made of other materials including bronze, gold, and stone.
Over in West Africa , shell money is believed to have been introduced into the region by Arab traders during the 8 th century AD. It was, however, only later on, with the arrival of the Europeans, that the use of shell money became widespread in the region.
The Portuguese, French, British, and Dutch who arrived in West Africa noticed that some of the tribes were fond of these shells and therefore encouraged its use as currency. Moreover, as these European powers possessed colonies in areas where cowries are found, they were able to bring shell money to West Africa in large quantities. In exchange for this shell money, these West African tribes provided the Europeans with slaves, gold, and other commodities.
Print showing cowrie shell money being used by an Arab trader. (Andy king50 / Public Domain )
The Changes to Types and Use of Shell Money
One of the consequences of the influx of shell money in West Africa was that other indigenous currencies lost their value and fell out of use. Prior to the 18 th century, various types of currency were being used in West Africa, including gold dust, silver coins, and salt bars. Shell money, however, became the currency of choice along the trade routes of West Africa and was also elevated to a symbol of status and power. Shell money was used in this region up until the 20 th century.
Shell money has also been widely used in Oceania and it is in this region that this currency has survived the longest. This type of currency has been used by many islands in the South Pacific Ocean . Typically, the shells were processed before being used as currency.
After harvesting and drying the shells, they would be broken into smaller pieces that are roughly of the same size. After drilling a small hole into each fragment, the shells would be heated over a small stove and cooled in water. This process serves to enhance the color of the shell. The shells would then be threaded with string, then smoothed and rounded.
In the past, strings of shell money were commonly used as currency. While this may not be the case today, in some areas, shell money is still used for ceremonial purposes, serving as dowries, land payment , and as compensation for settling disputes . Moreover, the production of shell money is a tradition that is still being kept alive in these islands. Apart from the aforementioned ceremonial functions , strings of shell money are assembled into ornaments, costumes, and headdresses. One example of this is a tafuliae in the Royal Collection. This object was presented to Queen Elizabeth II by Sir Henry F. Quan on the 18 th of May 1998, on the occasion of his investiture as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Tafuliae – ceremonial headdress and costume, using shell money, from the Solomon Island, worn as an adornment and status symbol. (WorldFish / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Top image: Cowrie shell money. Source: tradol / Adobe .
By Wu Mingren
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