Cowrie shells: an early global commodity

Dr Anne Haour, a West Africanist archaeologist from the University of East Anglia, has been awarded a Research Project Grant to study the distribution of cowrie shells in West Africa, AD 1150-1900, from archaeological, museological and biological perspectives.

The most famous member of the cowrie family, the moneta or money cowrie, has served as currency, ritual object and ornament across the world for millennia. Among places where cowries had strong ritual and commercial functions in medieval times are the Maldive Islands of the Indian Ocean, and the Sahelian regions of West Africa. Although these two locations were a quarter of a world apart, they were linked by thriving trade networks; one prime source, the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller ibn Battuta, has left us accounts of cowrie usage in both Mali and the Maldives.

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Coral stone box filled with cowrie shells, recovered in a grave at Fuvahmulak atoll, Maldives. Recovery was accidental, and not part of any archaeological research programme; thus its context, date and significance remain unknown.

The recovery of cowrie shells on West African archaeological sites – sometimes dating to the mid-first millennium AD and far into the Sahel – is considered a key indicator of international exchange. These shells are often implicitly assumed to have been traded into West Africa from the Maldives – over 12,000km away – but this assumption has not been challenged scientifically. Given the rapid pace of archaeological research in West Africa, the time is ripe for a review and re-analysis of these cowrie finds. Also, the Islamic period archaeology of the Maldives, has never been examined. Coral stone mosques, with building and carving techniques possibly influenced by East African traditions, are known but no archaeological excavation has been carried out on sites of the Islamic period and this is crucial, given the extensive damage caused to buried heritage by development. The problem is complicated by the fact that there exist numerous species of cowrie, with wide and largely overlapping geographical ranges that include most of the Indian Ocean and West Pacific. The East African annulus cowrie is especially significant as it is known to have been extensively traded in the modern period while the existence of species native to the West African coast has been discussed for almost a century without being critically examined. As a result, confusion surrounds the identification and provenance of cowries and questions of habitat preference of the various species, and the taxonomic characteristics allowing their discrimination, have not been given detailed treatment by marine biologists. In fact, taxonomic descriptions were once described as ‘chaotic’ by a conchologist. Fundamental questions remain unanswered: why did the Maldives eventually corner the market in the production of cowries? How did African communities view cowries and why did these shells come to assume important ritual functions?

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Dr Haour in front of one of the fine coral stone mausoleums in the Friday mosque complex in Malé. The Friday Mosque in Malé (Maldives), built in AD 1658 to replace the original mosque built in AD 1153 by the first Muslim sultan, is surrounded by a seventeeth-century cemetery with intricately carved coral stone headstones.

These factors have prevented a real understanding of the cowrie in respect of West Africa’s role in global networks. There is a need for a thorough, concerted and cross-disciplinary survey of the multiple uses of cowries, the nature of the shells exploited, and the time-depth of their use. To this end, this project brings together an unusual combination of expertise: a West African archaeologist (myself), a marine biologist (Professor Grant, UEA), an Africanist anthropologist (Dr Savage, UEA) and a Maldivian archaeologist (PhD studentship); a postdoctoral research assistant will be recruited mid-2015. By bringing together expertise in marine biology, collections-based research, anthropology and archaeology, this project will shed new light on how this one object, the cowrie, was valued within and between cultures over 750 years.

Solving the puzzle of cowries, an early global commodity, will not just improve knowledge of West Africa and the Maldives, but allow us to better grasp the nature of preindustrial global connections.

Dr Anne C Haour
University of East Anglia