LIBERIA, from a 1930s bundle, "circulated" cowries.

-cypraea annulata, unholed 1.00

-c. annulata, holed 2.00

-c. moneta, holed 4.00


You live near a tropical beach.  Every time it rains thousands of little shells wash up on the shore.  They're lovely little things, shiny, domed ovoids with a serrated cleft on the bottom.  They feel good in the hand, clink agreably when you shake a bunch of them, they make snazzy neckwear done up in strings. The hill people's women like them so much that if you bring a double handful up to them you can bring back a pottery cup, or a chicken, or a six inch piece of copper wire, or half ounce of  gold, depending on where and when this is happening.

Trading seashells is an ancient and ubiquitous human pastime, much older than trade in bits of metal.  Of the hundreds of types of shells and shell products that servcd as symbols of standard value, cowries, particularly the species cyprea moneta and c. Annulus, have seen the widest use.  They have remained popular throughout history, one reason being perhaps that they are impossible to counterfeit, another perhaps that they make great jewelry.

There is a running debate as to whether c. moneta and c. annulus are truly separate species.  They exhibit intermediate types, the extremes being the distinct shoulders of c. moneta and the smooth egg shape of c. annulus.  Size varies from 0.5 to 1.5 inches.  The ranges of the two types overlap, c. annulus growing from the east African coast to the Red Sea and Iran, and c. moneta from the Red Sea, along thePersian Gulf and the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, and on through the China Sea to Indonesia and the Philippines.  In general no distinction was made between them in trade, and throughout Asia and Africa the two types are often found together.  A major "factory" was in the Maldive Islands, the gathered shells being traded to Bengal, from whence they were wholesaled out to the rest of the world.

Cowries have been found in tombs of predynastic Egypt, c.5000 BC, likewise in those of Shang China, c.1500 BC.  They circulated throughout Africa, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Southeast Asia, China, and Melanesia.  They are found in use throughout the Pacific Islands, though they didnot constitute a standard of value, as they did in Asia and Africa.  Cowries were placed in graves as far afield as prehistoric Latvia and Anglo-Saxon England, and were known and sought by Native Americans before the European Invasion.

The value of the cowrie varied widely with time, place, demand, and supply.  A few examples can indicate the range:
 Togo, l896                  4000      = 1 German mark
 Inland Tanzania, 1880s      4-5000    = 1 Maria Theresia thaler
 Congo, c. 1900              30-60,000 = a male slave
 New Guinea highlands, 1924  5         = 1 small pig

Though single cowries have served as small change and gambling  chips throughout their range, most trade was conducted in bulk.  In 17th century Bengal 12,000 shells wrapped in a coconut leaf was the standard bundle, worth about 1½ rupees.  The English put them up in smallbarrels for the Guinea trade.  In early 20th century Nigeria 2000 were a "head."  On the east African coast and elsewhere they were done up instrings of 100, the backs of the shells being broken or ground down for easy stringing   These strings, tied together, were often measured in fathoms, the space between a man's outstretched arms.  Another method of stringing was to pierce the shell twice so they could be mounted "sideways" with the cleft facing outward.  Long, decorative belts were made thus in Melanesia.

Cowries have been frequently imitated.  Bone cowries are not uncommon antiquities in China, and it is generally assumed that the"ant and nose" coins are cowrie derivatives.  There is a school of thought that sees a cowrie model for the original lumpy Greek coinage.  Gold cowries have been found in Ancient Cypriot graves, bronze specimens from Etruscan tombs.  This writer has seen stone examples (provenance unknown) and a lead cowrie from Thailand.

In the second half of this century, with the inauguration of global telecommunications and a virtually unitary planetary economy we have seen the eclipse of the cowrie, as the next century may see the end of token currency entirely. The cowrie now has no "value," and is simply a beautiful creature, as it always his been.

 Information for this was taken mostly from A Survey of Primitive Money  by Alice Quiggin.  Originally printed in NI Bulletin.

-batch of cowries, modern, from "somewhere," as you see them, Unc batch 3.00

Bob Reis
POB 26303
Raleigh NC 27611
phone: (919) 787-0881
(8:30AM-10:30PM EST only please)
fax: (919) 787-1882
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