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The cowrie enjoyed a longer history as a circulating medium than any other type of money, stretching back to the dawn of history in China, and rivaling modern currencies in twentieth-century Africa. The I-Ching, among the oldest Chinese books, makes references to the use of cowrie money. For thousands of years, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East swept up money from the shallower areas of the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, home to a mollusk whose ovoid shell was called a cowrie. Perhaps part of the attraction of cowrie money was its variety; it occurs in different colors and ranges in size from as small as the end-joint of the little finger to as large as a fist. The cowrie probably first secured its hold on the human imagination as a commodity with religious and ornamental significance.

The use of cowries as money in China dates back to at least the fourth century b.c. when the first Chinese invaders found cowrie shells in use as money among the pre-Chinese population. In the Chinese language words denoting buying, selling, riches, prices, cheapness, and dearness, make use of the ideographic sign for the word “shell.” In 1375 b.c. P’an Keng of the Shang dynasty expressed his displeasure at his greedy ministers hoarding cowries and gems. In 221 b.c. the government of China banned the use of cowries as money. In a.d. 10 Wang Mang, seeking a return to ancient traditions, revived the use of cowries, establishing an elaborate system of five different sizes of cowries to serve as monetary units with specific value. The commercial classes raised a howl over the return to an antiquated monetary system, and Wang Mang desisted.

Visiting Bengal India in the sixth century, Pyrard de Laval reported the use of cowries as ordinary money, although gold and silver were available. Kings and lords stored up shells in treasury houses especially built for the purpose. Without counting, merchants faithfully accepted in payment baskets of 12,000 cowries.

At least as early as the sixth century cowrie money had found its way to Timbuktu, where it was used for smaller transactions. During the nineteenth century the French colonial authorities in the Sudan managed the supply of cowries to smooth out local fluctuations, sending cowries to communities short of cowrie money. In Timbuktu the authorities fixed the exchange rate of cowries at 1,000 cowries per French franc.

By the sixteenth century cowrie money had become an important component of the money supply in Nigeria. Even after World War I cowries were hoarded as a store of wealth, piling up in treasure houses like heaps of newly threshed corn.

Arab traders introduced cowrie money to Uganda at the end of the eighteenth century, where it became the dominant medium of exchange and store of value during the nineteenth century. A woman cost 2 cowries at the beginning of the century, rising to 1,000 cowries by 1860, probably reflecting a massive influx of cowries rather than an increase in the value of women. By 1911 2,500 cowries were sufficient to fetch a cow, 500 cowries a goat, and 25 cowries a fowl. An ivory tusk weighing 62 pounds brought 1,000 cowrie shells.

Cowries were durable, easy to clean, and impossible to counterfeit, making them a useful form of money over a vast geographical area. Unlike another primitive money, cattle, which were highly practical in the struggle for survival, cowries were valued by cultures for aesthetic, and in some cases religious, reasons. Cowrie shell money gives meaning to the phrase “shell out” as a popular expression for making payment.