The Cowrie in East Africa

Anne Haour, Abigail Moffett

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionary

13 Downloads (Pure)


Cowrie shells present a fascinating story as a key economic and social product of the Medieval world, taking on major importance in places such as West Africa, China, Bengal, and Northern Europe. Their widespread popularity and exchange, and the range of uses to which they were put, make these shells a key theme in global history. They were used, loose or strung, as currency; combined with other elements to form charms, added onto clothing and other materials as decorative elements, grouped for use as vehicles of divination, or deposited as grave goods or votive offerings. Tracing the exchange of cowries brings to light the expansive networks that linked different regions across the Medieval world, while similarities and differences in their use provide critical insights into past economies and social lives.

This contribution sits within the wider thematic section 'Work' of the Encyclopedia, under the heading 'Trade and exchange'.

Agriculture and Fishing
Core Case Study
Agrarian Maya Culture and Civilization
Fish Farming and the Carp in Medieval Europe

Trade and Exchange
Thematic Overviews
Trade Systems, 600–900: Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate Core Case Study
The Cowrie in East Africa

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages
PublisherBloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Cite this