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Cowrie ... what?



The cowrie is a tropical sea snail found in different oceans. Cowrie shells have traditionally been a means of payment. The main origin of this natural product is the Indian Ocean. The value was determined regionally by supply and demand. Cowries were part of the dowries and grave goods. In 1500 BC. the cowrie shell was the ideal currency in China. It is not certain whether this currency was used to pay a lot, but its use was probably widespread. When Chinese writing was developed, the shell sign was the symbol for "money" and appeared in signs related to buying and selling. In 1911 they had to pay 2,500 kauris for a cow, 500 for a goat, 25 for a chicken and 2 to 200 kauris for cooking utensils, depending on the size. They are an important element in magic, and also act as a fertility symbol.

The shells were spread over the different continents via the trade routes. The West India Company (1620), for example, focuses on triangular trade: one ship, three routes, different cargoes. Weapons, cowrie shells and cloth go to Africa. From there African slaves are shipped to South America. Finally, the ship returns to Europe with products from the plantations. The medium of exchange in this triangle trade was the cowrie shells.



The word cowrie is a Tamil word for a small mollusk. The porcelain bowl of this sea snail is yellowish-white in color and is the size of a hazelnut. The conch is fished in the Indo-Pacific, Maldives, Sri Lanka, the coast of Malabar, the Solo Islands to the Philippines and East coast of Africa, Mozambique. Cowrie shells were distributed by caravans, from China to Africa via India. Their shape, which evokes associations with the female gender by many people, symbolizes the principle of life, protection and fertility. Cowries were both jewelery and change, both in Asia and Africa. In black Africa, the shell adorns bracelets, necklaces and hairstyles among the Masai, the Peul and the peoples of the Congo. In Tibet we find cowries on the hats of newborns. They served as a refuge for the soul hunted by demons.

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