The Numismatic Bibliomania Society


The E-Sylum: Volume 25, Number 13, March 27, 2022, Article 22


Ted Puls shared a copy of the 13 page summary of the talk he gave to the International Primitive Money Society (IPMS) at the ANA show in Colorado Springs this month. Here's an excerpt. For an electronic copy of the complete paper, contact Ted at . -Editor

  The World's First Money,
My Money is Older than Your Money

The oldest money is the humble cowrie. In China, archeologic finds suggest their use as a durable form of storing value. Cowrie experts report that the earliest use of cowrie for money was ca. 2000 B.C. These small shells sometimes are stored in rare and beautiful bronze vessels made for this special use. This practice suggests the high value placed on these shells.(1) The earliest inscription discussing monetary use dates from the time of transition from the Shang Dynasty into the Zhou dynasty ca. 1100 B.C. (2) Bronze vessels of this era often had inscriptions to honor ancestors and report the faithfulness of the person ordering the vessel to the ancestor. One added how much he paid for the vessel in the honorific. The value paid was 120 strings of cowries for the vessel. The string at this time was apparently 10 shells on one string. If this accounting is accurate, it suggests that a pretty high value was placed on these shells.

Cowrie shells are not found in the interior of China. The center of culture at this time was far inland. Shells exist around China's sea shore not many are found. The known source for goodly numbers of early cowrie shells was Zanzibar during historic times (Eurocentric point of view) and as trade increased the smaller Maldive Island cowries were used which helped shipping costs. This far away source for cowrie made them rare as well as durable enhancing their usefulness as money. Even if some cowrie came from China's coast there was long distance shipping. This early use of large numbers of cowrie suggests the existence of a significant long distance trade interaction from East Africa, the Indian Ocean or other locations. North central China is a very long way from any cowrie source. I don't know if the cowries arrived in China via land trade routes or by sea trade from Africa or the Indian Ocean. Either seems to be remarkable for the time. I also note that Chinese Shield money or chuan from this era, seem to resemble designs on Scandinavian large button like items from mid-first millennia B.C. times. Additionally, I wonder if, while the Israelites were wandering around the desert in biblical times, the Viking's ancestors were wandering around Russia and China, trading.

Once traded into China, the cowries were of two species. The cowrie called Cyprea moneta were even named for their use as money. Another species Cyprea annulare were also mixed in the money supply. The moneta usually have one side with wide shoulders and the other with more rounded smooth edge resulting in an asymmetric diamond shape. The annulare are named for the yellow ring on the shell back. These seem to be more symmetric oval shaped. They seem to be generally smaller in size too. That these two species were used and even mixed together in hoards seem to have been noted by moneyers. Carved imitation cowries used later often have the diamond shape or the oval shape continued in the carved reproductions. Later times in China history, small differences in standard coin designs were used to denote a coins' mint or the date of the coin. The two types could have a meaning for the differences of similar cowrie carvings too. I propose that it is possible that the paired cowrie styles could also have more cosmic symbolism as in representing the later concept of yin and yang symbolizing balance in Chinese cosmology.

  Cowrie shell money 1
  Cowrie shell money 2

Both types of shells were uses in two styles in Ancient China. Some cowries were used as plain intact shell. Some cowries were shaved to cut off the rounded back apparently to allow easier or more compact stringing. Maybe the uncarved cowries were stored in a vessel rather than stringing. Some cowries are found with a green tint (both shaved and unshaved types) which is thought to be from long storage in bronze vessels. These green jade cowrie are considered to have an added cachet as a special kind of cowrie today. I have noted blackened cowries exist both shaved and intact types. I suspect that they were buried in soils with high manganese or iron or somehow treated to get this black color. The usual is for the cowries to be white.

For more information on the International Primitive Money Society, see:

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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