It's common on the North Coast to see young men wearing cowrie shell necklaces and wrist or ankle bracelets. I've asked a few times what they are and the reply has always been " I don't know what they are." Surely it's the look that moves them to wear them. But, wouldn't you want to know something about them? Me too.
Money cowries (Cypraea moneta) are small snail-like creatures that live in the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They have long been used in various ritual practices and used in clothing and jewelry in African and South Asian cultures.
For centuries before European expansion in the 1500's, cowries were also used as a form of currency in some areas. They were introduced by Arab traders to Uganda where it became the dominant medium of exchange there and elsewhere in Africa.
With the advent of the slave trade to the New World, cowries were among the items that Europeans exchanged with coastal West African groups for slaves. At the beginning of the 19th century a woman cost 2 cowries rising to 1,000 by 1860.
By 1911, in Nigeria 2,500 cowries would fetch a cow, 500 cowries a goat, and 25 a chicken.
Cowrie shell money is thought by some etymologists to have given rise to the phrase, 'shell out' money.