World’S First Money: Cowrie Shells

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US$ 6.06
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The first unit of currency was the cowrie shell—an actual shell, found in plenty in the Maldives, and used in Asia and Africa until the 19th century. In New Guinea especially, the shells held almost mystical power among the natives; among certain tribes there, shells like these were literally worth their weight in gold. No one knows why the cowrie in particular was chosen as currency, but its influence was not limited to primitive tribes. Early Chinese coins were cast to look like cowrie shells, indicating that in China, too, the shells were used as currency. These five cowrie shells represent a week’s wages for a laborer.

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