Cowrie shells are prevalent throughout history

The Amazing History of Cowrie Shells You Probably Never Heard Of

The Amazing History of Cowrie Shells You Probably Never Heard Of

Cowrie shells have be a prevalent part of many cultures. From the cowrie shell necklace in the last quarter of the 20th century in the U.S. to ancient rituals, this beautiful shell has graced societies for centuries. As time continues, and technology advances, we are able to find more and more uses for cowrie shells. At 55-55 Marine Drive, our collectable shop features cowrie shells as nightlight that illuminate rooms with a beautiful glow. But before we had electricity, cowrie shells played an even more important role in some cultures.

Shell Money

Cowrie shells, or cowries, are mostly used today as decoration or in jewelry. They are a favorite type of seashell for ocean lovers because of their unique rounded shape, smooth surface, and porcelain appearance. Because of their beauty, cowries have been utilized by humans for thousands of years, as jewelry, game dice, and even as currency. At some point in history, cowries has been used as money on every inhabited continent. While cowries are the most abundant in the Indian ocean, their use spread worldwide. Cowries circulated in India and China as currency as early as three thousand years ago, and were used around the world until the twentieth century. The classical Chinese character for money is actually a stylized depiction of a cowrie shell. Archaeological findings in North America have discovered cowries far inland, farther than they could have washed up on their own, suggesting that they were brought inland by natives, possibly for use as money. Cowrie shells also were used in Africa as currency. The shells had been used by some of the western nations for centuries, but the shell money grew in popularity after the explosion of the slave trade in the 1500s. Western nations along the coast would purchase slaves from nations farther inland and pay them with cowries, and then sell the slaves to Europeans.

Cowrie shells were useful as a monetary system because they were durable and could hold up to frequent handling, and wouldn’t be lost to vermin like food, just like metal money. Like coins, cowrie shells are small and easy to carry around, making them practical for transportation. They’re easily recognizable due to their shape, making it easy to thwart attempts of purchasing with fraudulent cowries. Because of their natural beauty and association with fertility, they were desirable to own, so they could offer something of value when trading for goods. The cowrie shells used in the monetary system were all close in size, so shells didn’t need to be counted out one by one, but could be weighed to expedite trades. Sometimes multiple cowries would be strung together to form larger units so counting would be unnecessary. Large payments were usually made using baskets full of shells. These baskets held around twelve thousands shells each.

Cowrie shell necklaces

Cowrie Harvesting

Because of the cowrie’s abundance in the Indian Ocean, cowrie shell harvesting became a leading industry in the Maldives for a time. Women wove mats using leaves of coconut trees, which were set out on the surface of the water. After the mats were covered by molluscs, the animals that live in the cowrie shells, the mats were set in the sun to dry. After that, the shells could begin to be used as currency. In the Maldives and other nearby nations, the worth of an individual cowrie was much less than in areas far from the Indian Ocean, where the shells were harder to come by. Interestingly, cowrie shells have the longest period of use of all known currencies in the world.

Other Cowrie Uses

Cowrie shells had other uses because jewelry and money. In Nepal they are used as part of gambling game and are thrown like dice. Cowries are also frequently considered a symbol of the goddess Laxmi and are used in Hindu festivals. Because of the shells association with fertility due to their shape, they have been worn as charms to encourage fertility and wealth. In the Fiji Islands, cowries were worn by chieftains to denote status, and were used in traditional crafts, along with other types of shells. Large cowrie shells, while not traditionally used as money, also have unique uses. In Europe they were used as a darning egg to help form the shape of sock heels. Large cowries are a favorite for decoration, and sometimes images and shapes are carved into the surface. When the outer layer of the tiger cowrie is carved away, it reveals a stunning shade of purple. If you’d like to incorporate the magnificent cowrie shell into your own home decor, check out these cowrie shell nightlights. You can choose from carved or unmarked tiger cowries, turtle cowries, and several other eye catching patterns. Pick one today to bring a taste of history and beauty home with you.

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About the Author : Marijo Swick

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