Shell money

Shell money
Chinese shell money, 16-8th century BCE.

Shell money is a medium of exchange that was once common. It consisted either of whole sea shells or pieces of them which were worked into beads or otherwise artificially shaped. The use of shells in trade began as direct commodity exchange, the shells having value as body ornamentation. The distinction between beads as commodities and beads as money has been the subject of debate among economic anthropologists.[1]

Shell money was not restricted to any one quarter of the globe, but in some form or other appears to have been found on almost every continent: America, Asia, Africa and Australia. The shell most widely-used worldwide as currency has always been the shell of the cowry species Cypraea moneta, the money cowry. It is most abundant in the Indian Ocean, and was collected in the Maldive Islands, in Sri Lanka, along the Malabar coast, in Borneo and on other East Indian islands, and in various parts of the African coast from Ras Hafun to Mozambique. Cowry shell money was important at one time or another in the trade networks of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia.

1742 drawing of shells of the money cowry, Cypraea moneta


African shell money

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

In western Africa, shell money was usual tender up until the middle of the 19th century. Before the abolition of the slave trade there were large shipments of cowry shells to some of the English ports for reshipment to the slave coast. It was also common in West Central Africa as the currency of the Kingdom of Kongo called locally nzimbu.

As the value of the cowry was much greater in West Africa than in the regions from which the supply was obtained, the trade was extremely lucrative. In some cases the gains are said to have been 500%. The use of the cowry currency gradually spread inland in Africa. By about 1850 Heinrich Barth found it fairly widespread in Kano, Kuka, Gando, and even Timbuktu. Barth relates that in Muniyoma, one of the ancient divisions of Bornu, the king's revenue was estimated at 30,000,000 shells, with every adult male being required to pay annually 1000 shells for himself, 1000 for every pack-ox, and 2000 for every slave in his possession.

In the countries on the coast, the shells were fastened together in strings of 40 or 100 each, so that fifty or twenty strings represented a dollar; but in the interior they were laboriously counted one by one, or, if the trader were expert, five by five. The districts mentioned above received their supply of kurdi, as they were called, from the west coast; but the regions to the north of Unyamwezi, where they were in use under the name of simbi, were dependent on Muslim traders from Zanzibar. The shells were used in the remoter parts of Africa until the early 20th century, but gave way to modern currencies. The shell of the land snail, Achatina monetaria, cut into circles with an open center was also used as coin in Benguella, Portuguese West Africa.

East, South and Southeast Asia

In China, cowries were so important that many characters relating to money or trade contain the character for cowry: . Starting over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency[2]. The Classical Chinese character for "money" originated as a stylized drawing of a cowrie shell.[citation needed]

Cowries were formerly used as means of exchange in India. In Bengal, where it required 3840 to make a rupee, the annual importation was valued at about 30,000 rupees.

In Southeast Asia, when the value of the Siamese tical (baht) was about half a troy ounce of silver, the value of the cowrie (Thai: เบี้ย bia) was fixed at 1⁄6400 Baht. In modern Thailand, it refers to interest paid for the use of money borrowed or deposited[3]; bia wat เบี้ยหวัด is a military pension.[4]

Oceania and Australia

In northern Australia, different shells were used by different tribes, one tribe's shell often being quite worthless in the eyes of another tribe.

Papua New Guinea Shell Money.

In the islands north of New Guinea the shells were broken into flakes. Holes are bored through these flakes, which are then valued by length, as in the case of the American tuskshell, the measuring, however, being done between the nipples of the breasts instead of by the finger joints. Two shells are used by these Pacific islanders, one a cowry found on the New Guinea coast, and the other the common pearl shell, broken into flakes.

In the South Pacific Islands the Oliva carneola was commonly used to create shell money. As late as 1882 local trade in the Solomon Islands was carried on by means of a coinage of shell beads, small shells laboriously ground down to the required size by the women. No more than were actually needed were made, and as the process was difficult, the value of the coinage was satisfactorily maintained.

On the Papua New Guinea island of East New Britain shell currency is still considered legal currency and can be exchanged for Kina.

North America

The shell most valued by the Native American tribes of the Pacific Coast from Alaska to northwest California was Antalis pretiosum, a species of long narrow marine shelled mollusk, a tusk shell or scaphopod. The tusk shell is naturally open at both ends, and can easily be strung on a thread. This shell money was valued by its length rather than the exact number of shells; the "ligua", the highest denomination in their currency, was a length of about 6 feet.[citation needed]

Farther south, in central California and southern California, the shell of the olive snail Olivella biplicata was used to make beads for at least the past 9,000 years. The small numbers recovered in older archaeological site components suggest that they were initially used as ornamentation, rather than as money.[5] Beginning shortly before 1,000 years ago, Chumash specialists on the islands of California's Santa Barbara Channel began chipping beads from olive shells in such quantities that they left meter-deep piles of manufacturing residue in their wake; the resulting circular beads were used as money throughout the area that is now southern California.[6]. Starting at about AD 1500, and continuing into the late nineteenth century, the Coast Miwok, Ohlone, Patwin, Pomo, and Wappo peoples of central California used the marine bivalve Saxidomus sp. to make shell money.[7]

On the east coast of North America, the members of the Iroquois Confederacy and Algonquian tribes, such as the Shinnecock tribe, wove elaborate belts of beads called wampum which was cut from the purple part of the shell of the marine bivalve Mercenaria mercenaria, more commonly known as the hard clam, quahog,[8] or when young, the littleneck clam.

West and Southwest Asia

In parts of Asia, Cypraea annulus, the ring cowry, so-called because of the bright orange-colored ring on the back or upper side of the shell, was commonly used. Many specimens were found by Sir Austen Henry Layard in his excavations at Nimrud in 1845-1851.

Human use

A live map cowry Cypraea mappa in East Timor

The shells of cowries (especially Monetaria moneta) were used for centuries as a currency in Africa. Huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced into Africa by western nations during the period of slave trade.[9] The Ghanaian unit of currency known as the Ghanaian cedi was named after cowry shells. Starting over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency.[10] They were also used as means of exchange in India.

The Classical Chinese character for money(貝) originated as a stylized drawing of a cowrie shell.[citation needed] Words and characters concerning money, property or wealth usually has this as a radical.

The Ojibway aboriginal people in North America used cowry shells which they called sacred Miigis Shells or whiteshells in Midewiwin ceremonies, and the Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba, Canada is named after this type of shell. There is some debate about how the Ojibway traded for or found these shells, so far inland and so far north, very distant from the natural habitat. Oral stories and birch bark scrolls seem to indicate that the shells were found in the ground, or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. Finding the cowry shells so far inland could indicate the previous use of them by an earlier tribe or group in the area, who may have obtained them through an extensive trade network in the ancient past. Petroforms in the Whiteshell Provincial Park may be as old as 8,000 years.

Cowry shells were among the devices used for divination by the Kaniyar Panicker astrologers of Kerala, India.[11]

Cowry shells are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms. They are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth.[12] The symbolism of the cowry shell is associated with the appearance of its underside: the lengthwise opening makes the shell look like a vulva or an eye.[13]

Cowry shells are sometimes used in a way similar to dice, e.g., in board games like Pachisi, Ashta Chamma (board game) or in divination (cf. Ifá and the annual customs of Dahomey of Benin). A number of shells (6 or 7 in Pachisi) are thrown, with those landing aperture upwards indicating the actual number rolled.

On the Fiji Islands, a shell of the golden cowry or bulikula, Cypraea aurantium, was drilled at the ends and worn on a string around the neck by chieftains as a badge of rank.[14]

Large cowry shells such as that of Cypraea tigris have been used in Europe in the recent past as a frame over which sock heels were stretched for darning. The cowry's smooth surface allows the needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily.

In popular culture

Georges Perec's novel Life A User's Manual (Ch. XIII) includes a story about an international trader in the 1920's, who exchanges goods and different species of cowry shells in several African countries, leading to a high increase of value.

See also


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

  1. ^ Davies 1994, Mauss 1950, Trubitt 2003
  2. ^ "Money Cowries" by Ardis Doolin in Hawaiian Shell News, NSN #306, June, 1985
  3. ^ เบี้ย
  4. ^ Royal Institute Dictionary (1982)
  5. ^ Hughes and Milliken 2007
  6. ^ Arnold and Graesch 2001
  7. ^ Chagnon 1970; Milliken et al. 2007:117; Vayda 1967.
  8. ^ Geary, Theresa Flores. The Illustrated Bead Bible. London: Kensington Publications, 2008: 305. ISBN 978-1402723537.
  9. ^ Hogendorn, Jan and Johnson Marion: The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. African Studies Series 49, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
  10. ^ "Money Cowries" by Ardis Doolin in Hawaiian Shell News, NSN #306, June, 1985
  11. ^ Panikkar, T. K. Gopal (1995) [1900]. Malabar and its folk (2nd reprinted ed.). Asian Educational Services. p. 257. ISBN 9788120601703. 
  12. ^ Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art by Sylvia Ardyn Boone. Yale University Press, 1986.
  13. ^ "Cowrie Shells as Amulets in Europe" by W. L. Hildburgh in Folklore, 1942
  14. ^ Cowries as a badge of rank in Fiji.
  • Arnold, J. E. and A.P. Graesch. 2001. The Evolution of Specialized Shellworking among the Island Chumash. In The Origins of a Pacific Coast Chiefdom: The Chumash of the Channel Islands., J.E. Arnold, ed., pp. 71–112. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A. 1970. Ecological and Adaptive Aspects of California Shell Money. Annual Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey 12:1-25. University of California at Los Angeles.
  • Davies, Glyn. 1994. A History of Money, from Ancient Times to the Present Day. University of Wales.
  • Hughes, Richard D. and Randall Milliken 2007. Prehistoric Material Conveyance. In California Prehistory: Colonization, Culture, and Complexity Terry L. Jones and Kathryn A. Klar, eds. pp. 259–272. New York and London: Altamira Press. ISBN 13:978-0-7591-0872-1.
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1950. The Gift. English translation in 1990 by W.W. North.
  • Milliken, Randall, Richard T. Fitzgerald, Mark G. Hylkema, Randy Groza, Tom Origer, David G. Bieling, Alan Leventhal, Randy S. Wiberg, Andrew Gottsfield, Donna Gillete, Viviana Bellifemine, Eric Strother, Robert Cartier, and David A. Fredrickson. 2007. "Punctuated Culture Change in the San Francisco Bay Area." In California Prehistory: Colonization, Culture, and Complexity Terry L. Jones and Kathryn A. Klar, eds. pp. 99–124. New York and London: Altamira Press. ISBN 13:978-0-7591-0872-1.
  • Trubitt, M.B.D. 2003. The Production and Exchange of Marine Shell Prestige Goods. Journal of Archaeological Research 11:243-277.
  • Vayda, Andrew. 1967. Pomo Trade Feasts. In Tribal and Peasant Economies, G. Dalton, ed., pp. 494–500. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press.

Further reading

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