Cowries in the archaeology of West Africa: the present picture

Anne Haour, Annalisa Christie

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14 Citations (Scopus)
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Despite the perceived importance of cowrie shells as indicators of long-distance connections in the West African past, their distribution and consumption patterns in archaeological contexts remain surprisingly underexplored, a gap that is only partly explicable by the sparse distribution of archaeological sites within the sub-continent. General writings on the timeline of importation of cowries into West Africa often fail to take into account the latest archaeological evidence and rely instead on accounts drawn from historical or ethnographic documents. This paper is based on a first-hand assessment of over 4500 shells from 78 sites across West Africa, examining chronology, shell species and processes of modification to assess what distribution patterns can tell us about the history of importation and usage of cowries. These first-hand analyses are paralleled by a consideration of published materials. We re-examine the default assumption that two distinct routes of entry existed — one overland from North Africa before the fifteenth century, another coming into use from the time sea links were established with the East African coast and becoming predominant by the middle of the nineteenth century. We focus on the eastern part of West Africa, where the importance of imported cowries to local communities in relatively recent periods is well known and from where we have a good archaeological sample. The conclusion is that on suitably large assemblages shell size can be an indication of provenance and that, while the present archaeological picture seems largely to confirm historical sources, much of this may be due to the discrepancy in archaeological data available from the Sahara/Sahel zone compared to the more forested regions of the sub-continent. Future archaeological work will clarify this matter.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-321
JournalAzania: Archaeological Research in Africa
Issue number3
Early online date19 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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