Shells and cash

The last post about Life on Earth was about Cowries, and I said that this time I would write about some of the ways they have been part of human society for a very long time.

Cowries as we saw, have very shiny, smooth shells, and this has led to them being used a currency throughout both ancient history, and modern times:

This is a species called Monetaria moneta, which looks like this:

Monetaria moneta (also called Cyprea moneta). Image from

As you may have noticed, the name of this animal sounds a lot like the word “money”, and in fact, this particular Cowry, and one or two other species, have been used historically as currency.

In China, they were used as currency from at least 1200 BC, and the Chinese Han character for money is the same character as for sea shell.

Cowrie shells from ca 900 BC, image from University of Maine

They were also used in Bengal in India as currency, and widely used throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

They were extensively used in the Maldives

Many African nations also used shells as currency, and during the slave trade era, Europeans would use cowrie shells in exchange for slaves, and there was a trade in cowrie shells between Asia and Europe for use in Africa.  Excavations of sites in the USA have uncovered cowrie shells in both the slave houses, and the houses of people who were involved in the slave trade (See further reading).

The use of shells as currency within Africa continued until the early 20th century, and in Ghana, some of their coins display cowrie shells as the image on one side.

20 Cedis coin from Ghana, image from the British Museum

Mondays post will be staying within Molluscs, but moving on to another amazing animal!

Further Reading:



5 thoughts on “Shells and cash

  1. How interesting. I’ve treasured cowrie shells for their beauty but didn’t realise they’d been used as currency. Cowrie – Money – yes that makes sense. Your anecdotes about cowries in the slave trade are painful to read.

  2. Pingback: Stalks, eyes and feet | Skeptical Squirrel

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