Cowrie Shells
The Currency of Africa

Cowrie shells were the most popular currency within Africa. Pictures of cowrie shells adorned cave walls. The Egyptians considered them to be magical agents and also used them as currency in foreign exchange transactions. Archaeologists have excavated millions of them in the tombs of the Pharaohs.

In the thirteenth century, cowrie shells were brought to Africa from the Maldives in the Indian Ocean by Arab traders. They first came to Egypt, then across the Sahara to the western Sudan region. Later, they were brought in by Dutch and English traders through the Guinea Coast ports of West Africa.

The Europeans were astonished that the Africans preferred cowrie shells to gold coin and in places where gold was the international unit of foreign exchange, cowrie shells were used to purchase small necessities.

Cowries were used in many other ways. One use was as special-purpose currency: bridewealth, payments for fines, divination ("the money of Ifa"), funerals, initiation into secret societies. Another was as decoration: on clothing, drums, divining chains, headdresses, ritual masks and furniture, and in games and in computation.
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