Cowries are marine gastropods from the family Cypraeidae found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They have shiny, patterned shells much sought after by collectors. When the animal is alive the shell is covered by a flap of skin which is part of a brightly-colored mantle. The long narrow aperture of the shell allows the animal to escape inside the shell from predators. The shell is very hard to break.
Some of the the rarest and most sought shells are cowrie (also spelled cowry) shells.. These single-shelled mollusks have a zipper-like opening on the bottom and come with dazzling variety of colors and markings. Most cowries live in warm coastal waters. They often inhabit coral and rocky reefs. Some are restricted to intertidal areas and seen in sand beds or tidal pools. When the animals are active the mantle comes out and covers the dorsal shell. The patterns on the mantle are there for camouflage and probably aids in respiration. There are sensory cells on the mantle surface for protection. They have a prominent incurrent siphon (entrance for water, food and oxygen).
Describing cowries, David Attenborough wrote: "From the slit along the bottom, it protrudes not only its foot but two sections of its mantle which extend over each flank of the shell and meet at the top. These lay down the marvelously patterned and polished surface characteristics of cowries."
Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se ; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems
Cowrie shells are oval- or egg-shaped and smooth to the touch, with a glossy, porcelain-like finish. Both lips of the slit-like opening are lined with tiny teeth. Many cowries have beautiful patterns and colors, making them highly sought after by shell collectors. [Source: Daniel Stokes, Dutch Shark Society, April 6, 2022]
Cowrie shells can be as unique as they are beautiful. Each species and sometimes each individual shell features unique colors, patterns, and textures. The term porcelain derives from the old Italian term for the cowrie shell (porcellana). It is no surprise they were widely used, in the past and still used today to make jewelry, and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.Today cowries are mainly appreciated for their beauty alone. People keep them as charms or collectibles — sometimes called “sailors valentines” — and incorporate them into craft projects. [Source: Heather Hall, AZ Animals, December 27, 2022]
The round side of the shell is called the dorsal face. The flat under side is called the ventral face. This side is long and narrow and contains the slit-like opening (aperture). The narrower end of the shell is the anterior end, and the broader end of the shell is called the posterior. The spire of the shell is not visible in the adult shell of most species, but is visible in juveniles, which have a different shape from the adults.
There are over 270 cowrie species. They include the hundred-eyed coswrie, deer cowrie, money cowrie, purple top cowrie, golden cowrie, isabel's cowrie, chestnut cowrie, dirty cowrie, tiger cowrie and egg cowrie. They range is size from just 1.5 centimeters (0.6 inches) for the smallest species to over 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) for the Atlantic deer cowrie (Macrocypraea cervus).
The hundred-eyed cowrie shell (Cypraea argus) is legendary seashell collectors and is one of the rarest seashells in the world. They live in shallow coral reefs in remote tropical islands in the Indian Ocean such the Chagos Island, Reunion and the Seychelles and around Madagascar,hiding under loose rocks along the shores. Their seashell is creamy or tan colored and covered with a distinctive polka dot pattern made up of tiny brown circles which look like eyes — the source of its name. This relatively large cowrie shells, reach 11.5 centimeters (4.5 inches) in length. The number and size of the rings varies dramatically on each individual shell, and collectors prize especially uncommon combinations, which are said to be like works of art. [Source: Nicholas Argent, Citrus Reef; Daniel Stokes, Dutch Shark Society, April 6, 2022]
The white-toothed cowry (Cypraea leucodon) is another rare cowrie shell. Until the end of the 1960s, only two known examples existed worldwide. While they are now more common, these cowrie shells still regularly sell for thousands of dollars. In the United States and Mexico, cowrie species inhabit the waters off Central California to Baja California (the chestnut cowrie is the only cowrie species native to the eastern Pacific Ocean off the coast of the United States; further south, off the coast of Mexico,
Some look like they have the milky way imprinted on the their backs. Others look like eggs with hundreds of lip-stick smudges. One of the rarest shells is the world is spotted Leucodon cowrie. Only three of them are known to exist in the world, one of which was found in the stomach of a fish. [Source: "The Desert Sea", National Geographic David Doubilet, November 1993]
Human Value and Uses of Cowrie Shells
Cowrie shells have been used as currency by a number of cultures including ancient Egypt, China, the Maldive Islands, Sri Lanka, Borneo, and parts of the African coast. Up until the 19th century, merchants made a fortune gathering shells in the Indian Ocean and trading them for ivory and gold among people in West Africa who used the cowries for currency.
Cowrie shells were also used in sacred rituals in North America, Brazil, Africa, and India. In Fiji, rare cowrie shells were worn by tribal chiefs as jewelry to demonstrate their rank. In many African cultures you will find women wearing jewelry made of many types of cowrie shells. These are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth. Some ceremonial tribal chief costumes also feature cowrie shells.
Fisherman often attach them to their nets for good luck and brides are sometimes given them to promote fertility. The most expensive modern seashell was a prized cowrie that the National Museum of Natural History curator, Chris Meyer, said sold privately for over $50,000.
Cowrie shells are sometimes used in games like parchisi like dice and are also used in divination among the Ifá people in Benin). In Nepal cowries are used for a gambling game, where 16 pieces of cowries are tossed by four different bettors (and sub-bettors under them). This game is usually played at homes and in public during the Hindu festival of Deepawali. In the same festival these shells are also worshiped as a symbol of Goddess Lakshmi and wealth. [Source: Wikipedia]
Cowrie Shell Money
Cowrie shells were sought after by ancient cultures and were used in Africa, China and Bengal as currency. The Maldives were the main producer of cowrie shells (Cypraea sp.) that were used as a currency throughout the classical world and even reached West Africa. Thor Heyerdahl wrote: “Throughout is people Maldives culture has survived through business with the outside world.”
Shell money is a medium of exchange similar to coin money and other forms of commodity money, and was once commonly used in many parts of the world. Shell money usually consisted of whole or partial sea shells, often worked into beads or otherwise 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. [Source: Wikipedia]
Shell money was used in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia. The form most well known to Americans is perhaps be the wampum created by the Indigenous peoples of the East Coast of North America, ground beads cut from the purple part of marine bivalve shells. The shell most widely used worldwide as currency was the shell of Cypraea moneta, the money cowry. This species 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 an important part of the trade networks of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia.
Cowries were 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 (about 16 grams), the value of the cowrie was fixed at 1∕6400 Baht. In modern Thailand, it refers to interest paid for the use of money borrowed or deposited. Bia wat, a term derived from the Thai word for cowrie, describes a military pension. In Orissa, India, cowry (popularly known as kaudi) was used as currency until 1805 when it was abolished by the British East India Company and rupee was enforced. This was one of the causes of the Paik Rebellion in 1817.
Cowrie Shell Money in China
tiger cowrie In Neolithic China, shells were used as money. They were durable and easy to carry and count. Cowry shells were used as a medium of exchange in the late Xia Dynasty (21st century B.C.) Those used in the Shang Dynasty (16th century -11th century B.C.) usually had teeth on one and a hole for string and a polished back. As natural cowries were in short supply copies made of stone, ceramic, other seashells, bronze jade, bone and even gold were also put into circulation. The first minted coins in China were bronze shell-shaped coins. They were uniform in size, weight and value. Cast in the Chu state during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.)., they usually had inscriptions of strange characters. One looked like an ant; another like a monster’s face and was later called the “monster face coin.” [Source: Shanghai Museum]
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. The Classical Chinese character for "money/currency", , originated as a pictograph of a cowrie shell.
The unit peng evolved to mean "friend" but it was not clear how many shells made up a peng in Neolithic times but later cluster of 10 shells makes one peng, the commonly held standard unit. The Classical Chinese character for "money/currency", , originated as a pictograph of a cowrie shell. Almost all things and acts related to money — such as fortune, poverty, trade, businessman, goods, greed, expense, ransom, compensation, expensive and cheap as well as noble and humble — have shell (bei) in their Chinese character. Chinese often call children or pets “bao bei” or bei bei, which literally means treasure. [Source: travelchinaguide.com]
History of the Cowrie Shell Trade
In an article titled “Tracking the Cowrie Shell: Excavations in the Maldives”, Anne Haour, wrote: “The Maldives are often assumed to have been a main source of” cowrie shells used as money” but “this has never been archaeologically tested. From the 9th century onwards, sporadic mentions were made of these islands, their trade links, and the importance of cowries. Such allusions were made by Arab authors such as al-Bakri and ibn Battuta (Carswell 1975- 77; Hiskett 1966a,1966b; Hogendorn and Johnson 1986), many, incidentally, also describing West Africa. But apart from a survey of pottery unearthed in the Maldivian capital Malé (Carswell 1975-77), no archaeological work had ever investigated the Islamic period. [Source: “Tracking the Cowrie Shell: Excavations in the Maldives” by Anne Haour, Annalisa Christie, Shiura Jaufar, Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 2016]
“The importance of cowries in the West African past is well known. They are inevitably mentioned as markers of Africa’s global connections (e.g., Johnson 1970; Mitchell 2005; York 1972), and their role within the West African social fabric suggests a deep history. Cowries in West Africa are first mentioned in the mid-10th century, as ornaments in women’s hair (Hopkins and Levtzion 2000: 35). In the 11th century al-Bakri states (in Hopkins and Levtzion 2000: 83) that cowries are among the most sought-after commodities in Kugha (seemingly an early capital of the Songhai Empire, in present-day Mali or Niger); by the 14th century, cowries are described as currency, and an import on which vast profits were made (al Umari, in Hopkins and Levtzion 2000: 260, 269). In the 14th century, ibn Battuta saw 1150 cowries sold for one gold dinar in Mali. Simon Lucas, in the late 18th century, explicitly writes that sub-Saharan consumers valued cowries for both ritual and currency usage. Oral traditions today evidence the centrality of cowries to West African thought (see especially Iroko 1987), while archaeology confirms the antiquity of cowrie usage. They are routinely recovered, some well-known instances being the first-millennium necropolis of Kissi, Burkina Faso (Magnavita 2009), a 10th century burial at Akumbu, Mali (Togola 2008), the 11th century ‘lost caravan’ from the Mauritanian Sahara (Monod 1969), the mound of Yohongou in the Atakora mountains of Benin (Petit 2005, 9th/10th century), and the 15th/16th century site of Durbi Takusheyi, Nigeria (Gronenborn 2011).
deer cowrie “Although cowries occur throughout the IndoPacific, it is the Maldives specifically which have been described as main exporters of these shells, and we wanted to discover whether this was likely to be accurate. This presumed long-distance connection needed to be adequately tested. The key study of the cowrie trade remains the book by Hogendorn and Johnson (1986), who combined fieldwork in the Maldives with first-hand knowledge of West African economic history to offer detailed data on cowrie flows for the 16th to 19th centuries. Through the cowrie, they sketch a compelling picture of daily life in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and of the succession of merchant groups who brought the shells to West Africa. This is the only detailed synthesis of the topic but, useful as it is, it remains concerned with fluctuations in currency rates following global markets, and gives little in-depth information on local constructions of value. But because in preindustrial societies the value of a medium of exchange may be inextricably linked to social, political or spiritual significance, this economic approach to cowries can only give a very partial story (for this, see especially Ogundiran 2002). Finally, most problematically, beyond the oftcited medieval sources Hogendorn and Johnson’s book gives little insight into the longer time-scale for cowrie usage in West Africa.
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Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.
Last Updated April 2023