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Cowrie Shells: Africa’s Historical Currency and Fashion Accessory

Image Credit: Industrie Africa

Cowrie shells, which are small, glossy marine molluscs, have held diverse roles in African history, functioning both as currency and as fashion adornments. This article investigates the historical and cultural importance of cowrie shells in Africa, examining their past as units of currency, indicators of wealth and status, and their ongoing influence in modern fashion and art.

These shells were once a highly valued form of money, used widely in trade and exchange across the continent. Their use as currency not only facilitated economic transactions but also signified wealth and prosperity. In addition to their economic value, cowrie shells were, and continue to be, used in jewellery and clothing, reflecting their lasting aesthetic appeal. They are often incorporated into various art forms, symbolising different cultural beliefs and traditions. 

Cowrie shells also hold a symbolic significance in many African spiritual and religious practices, believed to offer protection and bring good fortune. In contemporary fashion, designers integrate cowrie shells into their creations, blending traditional symbolism with modern style. This enduring presence of cowrie shells in various cultural expressions showcases their versatility and the rich heritage they represent. Through their multifaceted role, cowrie shells continue to be a poignant symbol of African history, culture, and identity.


For centuries, cowrie shells served as a widely accepted form of currency in numerous African regions. Their use as money is thought to have begun due to their plentiful availability in the Indian Ocean, followed by their spread into Africa via extensive trade networks. The inherent qualities of cowrie shells – their durability, uniformity, and the challenge of counterfeiting them – made them a practical and reliable currency option. In various African communities, cowrie shells were more than just monetary units; they played an integral role in the economic and social fabric. They were commonly used in the exchange of goods and services, functioning as a medium for barter and trade. In addition to commercial transactions, cowrie shells held significant value in social and cultural contexts. They were often used in the payment of dowries, a practice highlighting their importance in marriage and family relations.

Cowrie shells also had a role in the governance and judicial systems of many African societies, where they were used to pay tributes and fines. This usage underscores their value as a standard measure in societal and legal matters. The widespread use of cowrie shells in these diverse areas reflects their importance and versatility as a form of currency and a symbol of value within African cultures. Their historical role as currency has left a lasting imprint on African societies, with cowrie shells continuing to symbolise wealth, prosperity, and social status. This enduring legacy is a testament to the significant place cowrie shells hold in the economic, social, and cultural history of Africa.

The arrival of European colonisers and the introduction of Western currency systems led to the decline of cowrie shells as a form of currency. However, their cultural and symbolic significance persisted. Cowries continued to be used in ceremonial contexts and as adornments.

Image Credit: National Museum of African American History


Cowrie shells, in addition to their economic role, carried profound symbolic and spiritual meanings in numerous African cultures. They were commonly associated with concepts such as fertility, wealth, and the ocean, symbolising the interconnectedness of life and natural abundance. These small shells were more than mere objects; they held a revered place in the spiritual and cultural practices of many communities. In certain cultures, cowrie shells were integral to religious rituals. They were used as protective amulets, believed to ward off negative influences and bring good fortune. This protective quality made them popular in personal adornments and in the decoration of sacred objects and spaces. Their significance was also tied to fertility, often being used in ceremonies and rituals to promote fertility and prosperity.

Furthermore, cowrie shells were seen as a means of communication with the divine realm. Some communities utilised them in divination practices, where the shells were cast and interpreted to gain insights, make decisions, or predict the future. These practices underscored the belief in the shells' spiritual power and their role as a link between the physical and spiritual worlds. The use of cowrie shells in spiritual ceremonies and as amulets reflects their versatility and deep-rooted significance in African traditions. Their enduring presence in contemporary cultural practices highlights the lasting impact of these beliefs. Cowrie shells continue to be a potent symbol in African cultures, representing a rich tapestry of historical, spiritual, and cultural narratives.

Image Credit: Afrikrea


Cowrie shells have been a cherished component in African fashion and adornment for generations, valued both for their aesthetic appeal and rich symbolism. These shells have been artfully incorporated into various forms of personal adornment, including jewellery, clothing, and hair ornaments. Their use in fashion is not just about beauty; it also carries significant cultural symbolism.

In numerous African cultures, the incorporation of cowrie shells into one's attire was a marker of status and affluence. The number of shells used and the complexity of their arrangement could indicate a person's social standing. In certain societies, the exclusive use of cowrie shells was a privilege reserved for royalty and nobility, highlighting their esteemed status in these communities.

The intricate designs and patterns that artisans create using cowrie shells in traditional clothing and accessories showcase their remarkable artistic talent and creativity. These designs are often more than just visually striking; they can represent cultural narratives, beliefs, or the wearer's identity. The way these shells are woven into fabrics, embedded into jewellery, or used in hair ornaments reflects a deep understanding of craft and an appreciation for the cultural significance of these natural elements.

The enduring popularity of cowrie shells in African fashion is a testament to their timeless beauty and the continued relevance of traditional art forms. The skilful use of these shells by African artisans not only enhances the aesthetic quality of their creations but also preserves and celebrates an important aspect of cultural heritage. In contemporary fashion, both within Africa and globally, cowrie shells continue to be a symbol of cultural pride and a source of inspiration, bridging the past with the present.

Image Credit: IKTVA Forum


The utilisation of cowrie shells across the African continent displays remarkable variation, reflecting the diverse cultural and economic contexts of different regions. In West Africa, cowrie shells played a crucial role in the economies of historical empires like Mali and Songhai. Here, they were not just a form of currency but also symbols of wealth and trade, facilitating economic transactions over vast regions and serving as a measure of value in markets and trade exchanges.

In East Africa, particularly among the coastal communities, cowrie shells were a significant part of the trade networks with Arab and Asian merchants. Their strategic location along the Indian Ocean facilitated the integration of cowrie shells into these communities' trading activities, making them a vital element in the intercontinental exchange of goods and cultures. The shells, in this context, were both a medium of economic exchange and a symbol of the region's connectivity to wider trade routes.

Meanwhile, in Southern Africa, cultures such as the Zulu incorporated cowrie shells into their traditional beadwork. In these communities, cowrie shells were valued more for their aesthetic and symbolic significance than for their economic utility. They were often used in intricate beadwork for ceremonial attire, signifying different cultural meanings and social statuses. The way cowrie shells were combined with beads in clothing and accessories exemplifies the artistic creativity and cultural expressions of these societies.

These diverse uses of cowrie shells across the African continent highlight not only their versatility but also the rich cultural tapestries of African societies. From being a medium of trade and currency to a significant element in fashion and cultural symbolism, cowrie shells have played a multifaceted role in the history and cultural practices of Africa. Their enduring presence in various aspects of African life underscores their significance as a cultural emblem, transcending their original economic function to become a deeply ingrained symbol in the continent's cultural heritage.

Image Credit: About Her Culture


In recent times, cowrie shells have seen a resurgence in popularity in the realms of fashion and art, resonating with audiences both within Africa and around the world. Their distinctive shape and texture make them a favoured element in contemporary jewellery designs, where they are often blended with modern materials and styles to create unique pieces. This integration of cowrie shells in modern fashion exemplifies a blend of traditional cultural heritage with contemporary aesthetics.

Apart from jewellery, cowrie shells are also increasingly featured in clothing designs, where they are used as embellishments on various garments, adding a touch of cultural richness and visual interest. Their incorporation in fashion extends beyond mere decoration; it signifies a connection to cultural roots and an appreciation of traditional art forms.

In the art world, cowrie shells are being utilised in diverse and creative ways, from being central elements in artistic installations to being incorporated into sculptures and paintings. Artists are drawn to cowrie shells for their symbolic meanings and the stories they carry, using them to convey deeper messages and explore cultural themes.

This contemporary revival of cowrie shells has sparked renewed interest in their historical and cultural significance. People are increasingly curious about the origins of these shells, their traditional uses, and the meanings they hold in different African cultures. This growing interest is not only a celebration of the aesthetic beauty of cowrie shells but also a recognition of their enduring cultural value. The contemporary use of cowrie shells in fashion and art is a testament to the dynamic nature of cultural traditions, demonstrating how they can evolve while retaining their significance and appeal.

Summarily, Cowrie shells represent a fascinating aspect of Africa's cultural and economic history. From a widely accepted form of currency to a revered fashion accessory, their journey reflects the dynamic nature of African societies and the enduring legacy of traditional practices. As cowrie shells continue to inspire contemporary fashion and art, they serve as a reminder of the rich cultural tapestry of Africa and its lasting influence on the world.


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