Object DomicileThe cypraea annulus shell that was found in Mozambique is currently in storage at UCT's Archaeology Department. It is not currently part of any exhibitions.
Object OriginMozambique The date of origin cannot accurately be determined
The republic of Mozambique is a country in Southeast Africa which is bordered by the Indian Ocean. In this body of water, cowrie shells are made by sea snails as a form of protection, as camouflage, and as a home. These cowrie shells are expanded over time through a process called coiling as the sea snail grows. These shells are eventually broken down by the ocean or washed up on the shore, to potentially be used by human beings in jewellery and trade.
The Cypraea Annulus (Cowrie) Shell
The cypraea annulus or ‘golden ring’ cowrie shell is off-white or pale yellow in colour with two orange stripes which running along the upper sides, which almost touch to create a ring. This particular shell, which forms part of the Conchology collection held in the Archaeology department at UCT, was found in Limpopo. However, this kind of shell can be found in a vast number of different places such as the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, Tanzania and India (Lewis, 1985).
Cowrie shells are home to various species of marine gastropod molluscs or sea snails. These creatures are responsible for the creation and gradual expansion of their shells as they grow, through the process of biomineralization (Prendergast, 2002) and coiling (Lewis, 1985). Biomineralization occurs when the mantle or respiratory chamber of the sea snail secretes a substance called extra-pallial fluid which contains calcium, carbon and oxygen (Prendergast, 2002). The sea creature then extracts the necessary ingredients from the extra-pallial fluid and uses them to construct and extend its shell (Prendergast, 2002). All sea shells are made of calcium carbonate, extracted in the form of dissolved calcium and bicarbonate. The finer details of the mechanical process by which shells are created remains unknown.
“As the young cowry grows, it extends its shell by increasing the length of the last coil” (Lewis, 1985), a process which is described as analogous to adding a short length to the outer end of a rope. As sea snails mature, they begin spending more of their time thickening and decorating their shell, and less time lengthening their body whorls (Lewis, 1985). Some species render their shells far more ornate than others. For instance, while the cypraea annulus only has two orange stripes on its surface, the cypraea tigris or ‘tiger cowrie’ is densely covered with dark brown spots or stripes and the cypraea cribraria fallax is light brown in colour with widely spaced polka dots of white. The decorative qualities of seashells serve the practical purpose of camouflage, however to the human eye, these seaside gems hold an entirely different appeal.
The cypraea annulus, as mentioned before, was found in Limpopo during the Shankare excavations (Moffettt, 2016), a series of excavations held at the Shankare mining site where numerous archaeological discoveries were made. According to (Moffettt, 2016), “… their distribution and consumption patterns in archaeological contexts in southern Africa remains surprisingly unexplored” (Moffettt, 2016). Little attention has been given to their historical use. The golden ring cowrie occurs along the East African coast, and more broadly the Indo-Pacific coast (Moffettt, 2016). The round shape of this particular type of cowrie shell is useful in distinguishing it from other species or types of cowrie shells (Moffettt, 2016). While these shells are quite hardy, the most common natural break in the shell occurs lengthways down the middle (Moffettt, 2016). The shell samples from the Shankare excavations, including this cypraea annulus, show evidence of being modified by human beings. These shells were punctured on either side, possibly to be strung and used as a form of money (Moffettt, 2016). This could possibly be associated with their use as trade items, which is to be discussed in detail later in this essay.
The anthropological significance of this discovery furthers our understanding of cowries and how they were used, and this cannot be undermined. The Shankare excavations held in Phalaborwa showed that a community of individuals, located in close proximity to the ore source which continues to be mined today, produced metal in a domestic context (Moffett, 2016). Studying the production of metal, as well as the other communal activities which took place around this process, allows some insight into the lifestyles of the individuals who once lived there. Cowrie shells were found decoratively strung on a basket as well as numerous items of clothing, illustrating that at this particular point in time they were cherished for their beauty or aesthetic value as well as their monetary value. They are currently thought of as a cheap “African” form of decoration by tourists, while they remain culturally significant in areas such as Limpopo. This illustrates the progression of the significance of objects and artefacts over time, demonstrating how objects can mean different things to different people, depending on factors such as location and time period. In the Iron Age, the period from which this shell originates, it is clear that cowrie shells were decorative and financially significant.
For centuries, cowrie shells have been used in jewellery and clothing and particularly in areas such as Limpopo, they held a great deal of symbolic significance. Cowrie shells are associated with the deity known as ‘Mami Wata’ in west, central and southern Africa (Isichei, 2002 ). She is often depicted as a mermaid-like figure accompanied by a serpent, and numerous stories tell of her abducting her followers and those who choose to swim in the ocean (Isichei, 2002). Some of her victims were spared and blessed with enlightenment and divine knowledge, while others were brought to their deaths (Isichei, 2002).
The goddess is accessible through any body of water (Isichei, 2002). She has the ability to punish those who displease her and reward those who serve her purposes, and the gift of the cowrie shell is her way of showing her gratitude towards those who aid her cause (Isichei, 2002). This gesture is not to be taken lightly as the shell symbolises one of the four elements of life, water or ‘mooey’, and those with a particular attraction to cowrie shells are said to have a divine connection to Mami Wata herself (Isichei, 2002).
One tale surrounding cowries compares them to vampires, claiming that they feed on human blood and that while they are dead shells they feed and multiply (Isichei, 2002 ).These stories are undeniably linked to the practice of offering human sacrifices to the ocean in exchange for good weather (Isichei, 2002). The belief that cowries were obtained using human slaves as bait was first recorded in 1907 (Isichei, 2002), and these stories bear a great deal of similarity to the stories of Mami Wata claiming victims in the water. “It is said that the cowrie shells and the slave trade arrived at the same time… slaves were taken to the coast and killed… thrown into a large pool where the cowries attached themselves” (Isichei, 2002 p.68). There is therefore a distinct and inescapable connection between colonialism and the currency of cowrie shells, making them a deeply political symbol associated with violence, oppression and bloodshed.
The cowrie shell was used as a form of currency up until the 19th century, particularly due to its accessibility, convenient size and durability (Ron, 2011). Cowries were utilised as a legitimate form of money in Asia, Africa, China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Maldives and certain areas of Europe and they remain the longest used currency in history (Ron, 2011). Local African currencies lost their value and even disappeared once the cowrie was introduced by colonisers (Ron, 2011). Cowries were often pierced on either end and strung together to make transportation and payments of large sums of money easier for individuals. These shells ranged from 5mm to 19cm in length (Van Steen, 2013).
Cowries are used today in West African cultures as a symbol of wealth, attached in rows to masks to symbolise abundance and prosperity and used in clothing to portray a sense of royalty (Van Steen, 2013). They are associated with femininity and fertility due to their resemblance to female genitalia, and barren women often wear them to combat their sterility (Van Steen, 2013). They were historically considered to be a form of protection for anyone who wore them, and this belief remains present today (Moffett, 2016). Particularly in divination practices in sub-Saharan Africa (Moffettt, 2016), eight to 21 cowrie shells were thrown by sangomas, sometimes in combination with bones, and interpreted to determine an individual’s future (Ron, 2011). This is yet again a practice which remains today. These shells are thrown and the number of shells that land face up are associated with odu, a complex concept which can be understood in a variety of ways, one of them being a “mystery” (Ron, 2011).
Cowrie shells have also been used for medicinal purposes, and while the legitimacy of their medicinal properties is negated in the west, there is evidence to suggest that they may have some health benefits when consumed in the form of a powder or liquid. Studies which tested for the presence of phytochemicals and minerals in cowrie shells revealed that the shells contained considerable amounts of calcium, iron, aluminium and sodium, as well as ash, crude fibre and crude protein, all of which validate the use of cowrie shells as a pharmaceutical product (Oloyede, 2008). Cowrie shells have been used in alternative medicine to aid patients who suffer from strokes and heart disease and have proved to be revolutionary “chronic pain control” (Oloyede, 2008 p.540). The cement of cowries in particular also has the potential to be used as a binding agent for bone formation due to its high calcium content (Oloyede, 2008). They are also useful in the treatment of indigestion, ulcers and sprue syndrome, which is a type of malabsorption disease whereby vitamins and minerals are not absorbed into the bloodstream (Dash, 1986). It is therefore apparent through this study and numerous scientific investigations that the use of cowrie shells in both physiotherapy and pharmacy is justified, contrary to popular belief in the West.
The effectiveness of substances derived from these shells therefore should not be negated by western medicine and should not merely be attributed to a “placebo effect”. Interestingly, cowrie shells are also used in therapeutic massages to relieve muscular tension. The roundness and smoothness of the surface of cowrie shells, particularly those of a larger diameter, prove to have a soothing effect (Dash, 1986). Cowrie “lava shells” are heated using a two-part powder formula which causes a chemical reaction to heat the shell from its interior (Dash, 1986). The shell is then applied in a facial massage, with the heated exterior being used to create a soothing effect. These seashells are also used in the practice of reiki, a healing technique whereby a therapist channels energy into a patient using various methods including but not limited to physical touch (Dash, 1986). Cowrie shells therefore hold far more complex properties than they are given credit for by Western medicine.
The extraction of cowrie shells from the ocean for use in jewellery, medicine and the exchange of goods raises the topic of the removal of ocean life from the sea, breaching the broader topic of the parasitic relationship between economy and ecology. The relationship that humanity has with nature has long been severely detrimental, with human beings removing far more resources from the environment than is justified.
One such example of this is the abalone, known as the ‘perlemoen’ in South Africa, which is a type of marine snail which are either cooked or consumed raw. Due to overfishing, the abalone has been Red Listed as an endangered species, meaning that the purchase of these creatures has been completely banned (Bowden, 2017). However, fishing is poorly regulated, and abalones are frequently removed from the ocean and eaten, their shells heartlessly discarded on beaches in Hermanus and various other locations in South Africa.
While cowrie shells are not endangered like the abalone, they, like many other shells and sea creatures, are removed from the ocean without any further thought about the implications of their absence. By thoughtlessly removing these cowrie shells we are potentially causing the endangerment of yet another species, which has the potential to become extinct if our current rate of removal continues. With our general lack of understanding towards ocean life, there is no telling how many natural cycles we are jeopardizing. Through this process, there is no telling how many symbiotic relationships are being destroyed and how many other species may become extinct as a result.
13-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg has a strong grasp of the severity of this problem, stating “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children… I care about climate justice and the living planet” (Connect4climate, 2018) she continues, “It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few… you say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes” (Connect4climate, 2018). She makes the important observation that “We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis” (Connect4climate, 2018).
In conclusion, through the medium of the specific cypraea annulus shell found in UCT’s Archaeology Departments’ collection, I have demonstrated the complexities of the cowrie shell. Not only does it carry a great deal of symbolic significance, it carries the weight of colonial history. Attached to it are numerous fascinating stories about mythical deities, vampires, colonizers and the ocean. The particular golden ring cowrie that I have discussed, which comes from an Iron Age site in Phalaborwa, tells us about the lifestyle of the individuals within a community, which was based around this particular ore source. It tells us about the culture and values of those who existed during the Iron age and is therefore a significant archaeological and anthropological discovery. Within the greater context of the ocean itself, the cowrie shell leads to a plethora of thoughts surrounding the destructive relationship between economy and ecology, opening the door to a discussion surrounding the endangerment of ocean life.
Cowrie shells were often imported (Moffett, 2016) and therefore it is possible that the cypraea annulus shell in question travelled to South Africa from a foreign location where shells were also used for monetary purposes. The Indian Ocean trade networks could possibly have been responsible for this (Moffett, 2016).