The Inconvenience of Shells

Posted by Allison on 11 November 2010, 09:14

Can you imagine being asked to pay for something in shells? Cowry shells no less, which are available in all sizes and could therefore reasonably be used as different denominations presumably.

“That’s two shells in change…” It’s hard to imagine anyone actually saying that, but these shells were used as currency in ancient times. In fact they are commonly thought to be the very first currency used. We’re talking about three to four thousand years ago here, so it does explain why shells were used rather than anything else. Wouldn’t it be interesting though to know who came up with the idea of exchanging them as money? I wonder what they called them at the time, or how much one cowry shell would have got you.

Nowadays things are very different. We have countless different currencies and denominations and exchange rates are all the rage. You can’t help thinking that things would have been a lot simpler back in ancient times when all we had to worry about were cowry shells. Having said this, it would appear that it was the Chinese culture that used these shells, and not the world as a whole. Remember that communication between areas and countries would not have happened as it does now. This means that other areas could have come up with a similar idea simultaneously and it would have been totally independent.

But can you imagine the impracticality of carrying around lots of shells with you? A pocketful of change isn’t practical nowadays, so imagine how shells would have felt. Pockets would have been laden down very quickly indeed if you were well off: assuming of course that you even had pockets. It’s a strange state of affairs to be sure!

Nowadays we are steadily moving towards a cashless society so we could reach the stage where coinage becomes obsolete. We’re a way off that yet of course. But it is interesting to think that shells represent the first stage in our experience with currency, and we could be very near the end of using our modern day version right now.