The attractive and ever popular cowry shells have fascinated people throughout history and, subsequently, have many uses and meanings. They have been used extensively in jewelry making, as monetary value, for decorating accessories and masks; as well as for ceremonial, spiritual and ritual purposes in almost every part of the world. Gaining popularity throughout much of Ancient Africa, it was regarded as the strength of the ocean. In Africa, South and North America, the cowry symbolized the power of destiny and prosperity; and in majority of the African communities, especially in most West African cultures, the cowry shell is regarded as a female symbol or a sign of fertility. Therefore waistbands of stringed cowry shells are worn around the hips with the belief that they increase fertility. Women in Roman Pompeii are said to have worn cowry shells to prevent sterility; while in Japan, a name for the cowry shell translates to the easy delivery shell giving Japanese women who believed in the power of a cowry, a reason to hold cowry shells while giving birth to aid in a successful and less stressful delivery.
As the oldest and most significant form of monetary value in many ethnic groups around the globe, it is noted that the ancient Egyptians included millions of cowrie shells within Pharaoh's tombs. This practice also dates back thousands of years in China where shells could not be counterfeited and sources for cowries were so far removed from China giving the wealthy a reason to import cowry shells for currency use. Excavations of early Chinese emperors evidenced that even the royal dead had currency stored up for the afterlife because cowry shells were found placed in their mouths. The shells were used for centuries as African currency even before large amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced onto the African continent by Western nations during slave trading day. Currency in Africa before its modern history implied the use of a variety of precious and scarce objects as mediums of exchange both in the relations of commerce and in the symbolic domain of gift exchange. Precious objects such as gold, gold dust, ivory, salt, beads, iron, cloth and cowry shells were used as different forms of currency in various parts of Africa during the fifteenth century. However, it was the cowry shells that seemed to have dominated due to its importation into Africa from other countries around the globe. History also shows that they were also used as means of exchange on the sub-continent of India as well as in Arabia. Even after the introduction of coins, cowries still remained an integral part of many African regions. In the 1920s, the Igbos kept them in circulation; and in the 1930s, the Yorubas used them during the severe economic depression and its usage went on into the early 1940s. Although the use of cowries was discouraged or outlawed, they still played a special role as bride price payment in show of gratitude from the groom and his family to his bride and hers. Cowries were produced in sacks of bags as a dowry or bride price in most parts of Africa as noted in the widely acclaimed novel Things Fall Apart where twenty bags of cowry shells were paid as bride price during the engagement ceremony of the groom Ibe to his bride’s father Obierika. There are other ceremonies where cowries played a significant roles. Ceremonies such as funerals and secret society initiations would not be complete without a cowry payment.
In Northern Australia, different shells were used by different tribes with one tribe's shell regarded less in value or meaning in the eyes of another tribe. In the islands North of New Guinea, the shells were broken into flakes. Holes were bored through these flakes, which were then valued by the length of a threaded set on a string, as measured using the finger joints. In the South Pacific Islands the specie Oliva Carneola was commonly used to create shell money. As late as 1882, local trade in the Solomon Islands was carried on by means of a coinage of shell beads, small shells laboriously ground down to the required size by the women. No more than were actually needed were made, and as the process was difficult, the value of the coinage was satisfactorily maintained. It is said that on the Papua New Guinea, the Island of East New Britain’s shell currency is still considered legal currency and which is exchanged for Kina.
Used as decorations on drums, clothing, headdresses, furniture and many other items, cowry shells are also sometimes used as dice, in board games or in foretelling the future. As shells are thrown, those landing with their openings showing indicate the actual numbers rolled. Although cowry shells are no longer used especially as monetary exchange, their memory and history are kept alive within the confines of the Central Bank of West African Countries in Bamako Mali, in museums, art shows and exhibitions and fashion shows in various countries around the globe. These measures continue to explore and showcase the multicultural significance of the cowry in today’s society; therefore making the cowrie shell a widespread symbol of continents, cultures, and the arts.