Bob Klein

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An Ancient Monetary System: The Cowry Shell Coins


For anthropologists, a stable currency is one of the hallmarks of advanced culture. In colonial North America, the Confederacies of the Algonquin and the Iroquois used wampum, beads made from the shell of the quahog hard clam. Purple beads carried a higher value than white ones and they were strung together into belts and strings. A similar practice served on the Pacific coast, using tusk shells. What is the oldest shell currency?

Ancient China

Bronze artifacts from China that date back as far as 1250 B.C. depict the monetary use of cowry shells, native to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Chinese written characters in words of financial significance are still composed partly of cowry shell symbols. The cowry shell became prominent throughout southern Asia, Africa, the South Pacific and even into southern Europe as part of Phoenician, Greek, and Roman activity.

Advantages of Cowries

To serve well in such extensive networks, money needs to be durable, convenient to use, consistent in appearance, easy to store and easily divisible. Cowry shells offer all of these traits and are also impossible to counterfeit cheaply, have limited availability outside their native regions and are easy to count or weigh. These qualities kept the currency alive well into the modern era.


Cowries were probably introduced as currency in Africa by Arab slave traders making the rounds through northern and western Africa during the Abbasid Caliphate of the late 8th century. Since shells were supplied from the east coast of Africa and southwest Asia, they were of far greater value in West Africa, meaning it was easier to pay for slaves there and sell them elsewhere. Gradually, the slave trade spread the use of cowries as money to the African interior as well, where it was used into the first part of the 20th century.

Getting rich had its own disadvantages. An Arab trader of the time described paying a huge sum of shells to a merchant, who lost money on the deal because it cost the businessman more to hire labor to carry it than the sum was worth. Because cowries are native to the Indian ocean, in Bengal they weren't rare and it was customary to pay bills in baskets of 12,000 cowries!

Of course, through trial and error in the marketplace, cowries gave way to gold as money, since gold is rarer than cowries.  And, it is more durable than cowries, divisible, and even more consistent in quality.

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