Cowries’ shells have a rich history as a form of currency in Africa that dates back to pre-colonial times. These small, shiny shells were once a valuable commodity that played a critical role in the economies of various African societies.

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History of Cowries as a Form of Currency in Africa

The use of cowrie shells as currency in Africa began in West Africa, specifically in what is now Nigeria. Cowrie shells were initially imported from the Maldives and other parts of the Indian Ocean and were traded for goods such as textiles, beads, and metalwork. They were so prized that they eventually became a form of currency in their own right. The shells were used for buying and selling goods, paying taxes, and even as bride prices in traditional marriages.

As trade expanded throughout Africa, cowrie shells became a widespread currency, with their value varying depending on the region and the local economy. In some parts of West Africa, they were used alongside other forms of currency such as gold dust and kola nuts. In East Africa, they were commonly used as a currency by the Swahili people, who used them in trade with India, Arabia, and China.

In many African societies, cowrie shells were not only a form of currency but also had religious and cultural significance. They were often used in spiritual rituals and ceremonies and were believed to have protective powers. In some societies, cowries were also used as a form of divination, with the arrangement of the shells believed to reveal messages from the spirits.

The arrival of European colonizers in Africa brought about significant changes to the use of cowrie shells as currency. European powers introduced their own currencies and outlawed the use of traditional currencies like cowrie shells. This led to the decline in the use of cowrie shells as currency, and they were eventually replaced by paper money and coins.

Despite the decline in their use as currency, cowrie shells remain an important symbol of African cultural heritage. They continue to be used in traditional ceremonies, artwork, and fashion. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the use of cowrie shells as a form of currency, with some African countries considering their reintroduction as a means of promoting economic growth and preserving cultural heritage.

In addition to being used as currency in Africa, cowrie shells have had a variety of other uses across the continent.

Cowries as a Decorative Objects

Cowries have been used as decorative objects for thousands of years, and their use as adornments is still popular in many cultures today. These small, shiny shells have a distinctive shape and pattern that makes them ideal for a variety of decorative purposes.

In ancient times, cowries were highly valued as a form of currency, and they were often used to create jewelry and other decorative objects. In some cultures, cowries were believed to have magical properties, and they were used in religious ceremonies and as talismans to ward off evil spirits.

Today, cowries continue to be used in many parts of the world as decorative objects. They are often incorporated into jewelry, such as necklaces, bracelets, and earrings, and they can also be used to embellish clothing and other accessories.

One of the reasons cowries are so popular as decorative objects is their versatility. They come in a wide variety of sizes and colors, and they can be used to create intricate designs and patterns. Because they are small and lightweight, they can be easily incorporated into a wide range of different materials, including fabrics, metals, and other natural materials.

Another reason cowries are so popular as decorative objects is their natural beauty. Their shiny, smooth surface and intricate pattern make them highly attractive, and they can add a touch of elegance and sophistication to any outfit or home decor.

It has been used as decorative objects for centuries, and their popularity shows no signs of waning. Whether used in jewelry, clothing, or home decor, these small shells are valued for their versatility, natural beauty, and cultural significance.

Cowries have also been used for divination and fortune-telling in some African societies. This practice involves arranging the shells in specific patterns or configurations and interpreting the messages that they convey. This use of cowries as a divination tool dates back to ancient times and continues to be practiced in some parts of Africa today.

Cowries as a Form of Payment

Cowries as a form of payment
Cowries as a form of payment

In some African cultures, cowries have also been used as a form of payment or tribute to rulers and leaders. In traditional kingdoms, cowries were sometimes used to pay taxes or to show loyalty to a particular ruler. They were also used as a form of tribute or payment to neighboring kingdoms or tribes.

Cowries as a Medicine

In traditional African medicine, cowrie shells have been used in various remedies and treatments for centuries. The belief in the medicinal properties of cowrie shells is based on the idea that they possess spiritual powers that can be harnessed to heal the body.

One common use of cowries in African traditional medicine is in the treatment of eye diseases. Cowries are believed to have a cooling and soothing effect on the eyes and have been used to treat various conditions such as conjunctivitis, cataracts, and glaucoma. Cowrie shells are sometimes ground into a powder and mixed with other herbs and substances to make an eye wash or poultice.

Cowries as a Skin Treatments

Cowries have also been used in the treatment of skin conditions. They are believed to have antifungal and antibacterial properties that can help to heal skin infections, rashes, and wounds. Cowries have been used in various forms of traditional remedies such as ointments, creams, and poultices.

In addition to their use in treating specific ailments, cowrie shells have also been used as a general tonic for the body. They are believed to have a balancing and harmonizing effect on the body’s energy and can be used to improve overall health and vitality.

It’s important to note that while cowries have been used in traditional African medicine for centuries, their effectiveness has not been scientifically proven. There is limited research on the medicinal properties of cowrie shells, and their use should be approached with caution.

The use of cowrie shells in traditional African medicine reflects the deep connection between spirituality, culture, and health. For many African societies, cowries are not just a form of currency or decorative object, but a symbol of spiritual power and healing.

Cowrie shells have played a diverse range of roles in African cultures and societies beyond their use as currency. Their unique and intricate beauty has made them a popular decorative object, while their spiritual and cultural significance has made them a valued part of traditional practices and ceremonies.


In conclusion, cowrie shells have a fascinating currency history in Africa, serving as a valuable commodity and form of currency for many centuries. Their use as a currency declined with the arrival of European colonizers, but their cultural significance has endured. As Africa continues to develop and modernize, the role of cowrie shells in African economies and cultures may continue to evolve.

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