The History of the Cowrie Shell in Africa – and its Cultural Significance
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Quick question; what comes to mind when you glance at any cowrie-inspired hairstyle or costume?
Cowrie shells tend to send unmistakable vibes of Black culture—and for good reason. The small shells have a long and intriguing history in Africa and for the Black community in general.
Cowrie is a small, glossed, porcelain-like shell that’s typically light beige. It has a gentle oval structure with a ventral aperture that splits the shell in half. The Cowrie shell in its immaculate beauty is more than a fashion statement. In traditional African culture, the small humped, ovate shells hold significant spiritual and even monetary value.
In line with the theme of educating the masses on Black history and culture, this article will delve into the history of the cowrie shell in Africa—including its cultural significance and fashion appeal today.
History of the Cowrie Shell in Africa
Did you know that the humble cowrie shells we sport freely today were once one of the most important symbols of wealth and money for centuries? It was a universal form of currency whose relevance weaved into the cultural fibre of Ancient African societies.
The durable and light-weight characteristics of the shells made them an ideal trading currency long before the world adopted pounds, dollars, or any other form of paper/coin currency.
“Whoever is patient with a cowrie shell will one day have thousands of them”
— Hausa Proverb
Image: Royal Mint Museum, UK
Drawing on the Book “ The Shell Money of the Slave Trade,” cowries were recognized as an important means of payment and a symbol of wealth/power by native Africans up until the 20th century. In fact, they’re believed to be the first pan-regional currency in West Africa.
Chinua Achebe, a widely celebrated Nigerian novelist, references the monetary value of cowries in his Award-winning book Things Fall Apart (1958) as a testament to their deep roots in African culture.
Fun fact: The Ghanaian word “cedi” is Fanti language translation of “cowries”—and it also happens to be the name of the country’s unit of currency.
Shell money aside, cowrie shells were also seen as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. An article published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal notes that the “particular qualities of the shell imbued it with culturally specific value. It is suggested that cowries, as part of divination sets, were active in divination because of their white colour and their origin in the (maritime) ancestral realm that anchored divination in notions of ancestry, fertility and healing.”
In some contexts, the voluptuous shape of the cowrie was associated with feminine form – i.e., the curved back symbolized a pregnant woman. One ethnographic author even suggests that the jagged side of a cowrie represented an eye or the vulva of a woman.
Cowrie Shells in Modern Culture
Image: Cowrie shell & macramé headdress by Melissa Simon-Hartman
In recent years, cowries have taken root in pop culture—with people adorning the shells on instruments, attires, and hairstyles. An article appearing in Vogue points out the trendy nature of the Cowry and how it continues to ‘pop-up’ in modern fashion.
One of the most common ways of rocking cowrie shells is by weaving them into African braided hairstyle or in traditional African-inspired headpieces. For inspiration, you can look up how some celebrities such as Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and Solange Knowles managed to pull off the cowrie-look.
The undeniable Queen of cowrie is Ivorian designer, LaFalaise Dionn.
Beyoncé has used LaFalaise's beautiful cowrie pieces on more than one occasion in her videos. The first appearance was in her moving Spirit video for The Lion King.
Image: Trace Lifestyle Magazine
Another good example is the “ Cowrie Shell REBELLION belt” and accompanying traditional African braided crown by Simon-Hartman—which was worn by Beyoncé in her Black is King visual album.
Fellow proponent of Black culture, Solange Knowles rocked her urban take on cowries.
The singer, who is known for her distinct and African-inspired style choices, sported an iconic braided hairstyle accessorized with beads and cowrie shells in her music video for “Don’t Touch My Hair.” The song is part of her album “A Seat at the Table”—in which she discusses the lives of Black people in the U.S (according to The New Yorker).
Let's Celebrate Black Culture!
The underlying point is that Black culture is beautiful and it should be celebrated. Wearing cowries is more than a fashion trend. It has far-reaching implications that hold cultural meaning. This is the essence of the U.K. Black History month—and it’s the foundation of what Simon-Hartman symbolizes as a brand.