It’s Tuesday so it’s The History Of Retail In 100 Objects post – This weeks object is The Cowrie Shell. In the earliest civilisations the concept of ‘trading’ was well established, but there was no equivalent to money for use in such transactions. To get your food you would ‘barter’ an item such as fish, fur, clot hes, decorative items, tools or even weapons. From 9,000 to 6,000 BC the nearest equivalent to currency was cattle. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first widespread form of currency was introduced around 1200 BC, through the adoption of the cowrie shell as a trading ‘token’. These shells shared many of the attributes of modern coins – being durable, portable, easily recognisable and hard to fake. As well as being counted out in payment, they could also be traded by weight. The cowrie shell was indigenous to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but its use as a trading token spread and it became the most commonly used means of payment across large parts of Asia, Africa, and some of the outer reaches of Europe. The significance of shell trading in China is evidenced by ancient artefacts that show simplified representations of the cowrie used as part of the characters for words with economic meaning – such as money,coin,buy. Just as with currency exchanges today, the value of the cowrie shell could fluctuate, depending on where it was being traded. For example, in some places a few cowries would buy a cow; whereas in the Maldives (where cowrie shell collecting and trading was a big business), several hundred thousands of cowries would be required in exchange for a single gold dinar. The Portuguese, English, French and Dutch played a significant role in promoting the cowrie as a currency for commercial transactions, including using it for trading in slaves. In Western Africa, ‘shell money’ remained legal tender right up until the mid 19th century.
Contribution to Retail History
As the first recognised ‘common currency’, the cowrie shell played a vital contribution to the development of commerce and early formal retail. Non-perishable, lightweight and robust, it opened up international trade opportunities by enabling transactions to be carried out across continents and between different cultures.
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