Shell money

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Taboo shell money strings from the island of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea (around 1900), still in use today for trading and cult purposes (2011)

Shell money is a collective name for various pre-coin ( premonetary ) forms of simple money ( primitive money ), which were and are still used by indigenous peoples , especially in Africa , America , Asia and the South Pacific . For some peoples, a shell currency now serves as a complementary currency alongside the official monetary currency . Also, the cowrie money and other shell money are as shell money , although it referred from the cases of worm is produced. A real clam shell that is used as clam money is that of Macoma nasuta . Sometimes the term " mollusc money " is also used, the mollusks ( mollusks ) include both mussels and snails .

Most of the shell money consists of small, rounded discs that are strung on strings and rated according to their length. Sometimes the strings of pearls are provided with measuring beads of different colors at regular intervals, which allow an easier length measurement of the money strings in question. In some cases, this type of payment is still used today, especially in ritual contexts, for example to pay a bride price before marriage or at funerals . In some cultures the mussel disks were or are not given out of the hand as a means of payment, but the ribbons serve as a kind of account in which each small disk represents a contract and is removed from the ribbon when paid for. There are variants of mussel money in which the mussel slices are combined with other valuable objects, including bones. In addition to small shell discs, arm rings made from the innermost shell layer ( mother-of-pearl ) can also have a monetary function.


Chinese Shell Money, 16th Century (2008)
Production of Abololo shell money in Auki in the Solomon Islands (2007)
Hard schurz of shell money (snail shells slices), Admiralty Islands , Papua New Guinea (2011)

The most common form of shell money was the cowrie money from the housings of cowries, which was in Africa, Asia and Oceania in use and has today only traditional meaning.

Asia and Oceania

  • The taboo shell money of the Tolai people in New Britain in Papua New Guinea has, in addition to its importance as a complementary currency, also profound cultic, religious and spiritual meanings.
  • The Aaht shell money was mainly used as a currency in the area of ​​the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific.
  • The Diwarra snail shell money from the land snail Nassa camelius was widespread in Melanesia , around 1900 it was still the customary currency in the Bismarck Archipelago .
  • The Kula ritual is a system of exchanging gifts of shell necklaces and bracelets between the various Trobriand Islands in the Pacific.


  • Dongo , Achatina money or agate snail money was strung on strings in West Africa and worn around the neck or hips.

North America

  • Indian tribes on the east coast used wampum pearls from sea snails and mussels as a medium of exchange.


The residents near the coast broke the shells , pierced the discs with the help of sharpened sticks (today: drill bits) and lined them up on a ribbon. The finished ribbons were then ground down with stones. There was a division of labor in production: the women collected and sorted the mussels, while the men were left with the task of making the ribbons and grinding the mussels.

Due to the scarce availability and the difficult production of shell money, the value of shell money was naturally regulated. The shells were not used individually, like coins , but in combination, as money strings. Instead of counting the individual slices, the length of the packed strips was often taken as a measure of value.


Newest first:

  • Alexander Solyga: Taboo - the shell money of the Tolai. An ethnology of money in Papua New Guinea. Reimer, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3496028512 (economic ethnology study, received the prize of the city and the University of Bayreuth in 2011).
  • Sigrun Preissing: Tabu - The shell money of the Tolai in Papua New Guinea. In: Journal for Social Economy . Volume 46, No. 160–161, Kiel 2009, pp. 38–40 ( PDF file; 233 kB; 4 pages on
  • Pei-yi Guo: From Currency to Agency: Shell Money in Contemporary Langalanga, Solomon Islands. In: Asia-Pacific Forum. Volume 31, 2006, pp. 17-38 (English; online at
  • William Taufa, Heinrich Fellmann: About the shell money (a taboo) on Neupommern, Bismarck Archipelago (German New Guinea). In: Announcements of the seminar for oriental languages ​​at the Friedrich Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin, Dept. 1: East Asian Studies. Volume 5, 1902, pp. 92-102.
  • Richard Parkinson: About the drilling of shell plates, for the production of arm rings etc. etc. In: International Archive for Ethnography. Volume 7, 1894, p. 89 (with drawing of a drilling device from New Guinea).
  • Wilhelm Ludwig Volz: History of the shell money. In: Journal for the entire political science / Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics. Volume 10, Issue 1, Mohr Siebeck, 1854, pp. 83-122 ( online at JSTOR ).

See also

Web links

Commons : Shell Money  - Images and Media Files
  • Entry: shell money. In: Lexicon of Biology. Spectrum Academic Publishing House, 1999 .;
  • Entry: Solomon Islands: production of shell money. In: International banknote collectors' association banknotesworld, Munich, April 10, 2011 .;

Individual evidence

  1. Lexicon entry: Molluskengeld. In: Lexicon of Biology. Spectrum Academic Publishing House, Heidelberg 1999 ( online at