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     2. Trade Goods:

     Shell currency has been around for over 4,000 years and was, in it's heyday, the most widely used currency in the world. Even today, there still exist minor currencies based on certain shells.

Some examples of shells' uses in trade are:

  • Cowrie shells, collected loose in bags or strung into strands, were the earliest forms of currency used in many countries. The Chinese, so far as we know, were the first people to use cowries as currency. Here, cowries have been found in prehistoric Stone Age sites. Examples of other country's native money-strands are the "diwara" of New Guinea, "rongo" in the Melanesian islands and "sapisapi" in Africa. The image of the cowrie as a type of currency was so strong that the first metal coin minted in the Greek colony of Lydia (around 670 B.C) was modeled after that shell. By the eighteenth century, approximately 400 million cowries were being traded per year (that's a LOT of shells!!!) mostly for the purchase of black slaves. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it could take up to 100,000 cowries just to buy a young wife. Inflation, it seems, was the main demise of the cowrie currency.

Iin New Guinea, the kina, (main currency) and the tabu (shell currency) are both used in some areas of New Guinea. It is thought that the kina was named after the gold-lip pearl shell which is the most highly prized shell by the various cultural groups. Too learn more about tabu, visit the Money - Traditional Tolai Tabu web Page.

Today, the currency of Papua New Guinea is made up of Kina (keena) and toea (toya) with 100 toea equal to One Kina.

Live mid-market rates as of 2003.02.28 17:36:21 GMT.
1.00 PGK Papua New Guinea Kina (PGK)= 0.278396 USD United States Dollars
1 PGK = 0.278396 USD 1 USD = 3.59200 PGK

Click HERE to see photos of New Guinea tribal costume


  • Hard clamshells and whelks were the shells used to make the North American Indian wampum. Eastern Indians also used the tusk shell as a trade shell. Wampum continued to be used as money through the first half of the eighteenth century when it finally died out due to counterfeiting and mass production.

Mercenaria mercenaria
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Hard clamshells, Northern Quahog

Dentalium (Antalis) pretiosum 
Indian-money Tusk, I"o*qua shell
  • Trade Beads and other ornaments were made of  "Spiny Oyster" for barter

The Chumash Indians of California, U.S.A. also make beads from the purple olive shell that they use as money.  The name “Chumash” actually translates to men “bead money makers”. 
Y ou may which to visit them at their
web site.

Olivella biplicata
(Sowerby I, 1825)
Purple Olive Shell

·         Pearly oysters were traded all over the Panamanian and Andean region.

·         Aztecs paid shell tributes to the Emperor Montezuma.

·         Ancient Phoenician coins distributed throughout the Mediterranean world were sculptured in the likeness of the scallop, murex and Triton shells.

  •     Coins from many countries display a mollusc on one side e.g.:
    • Sacred chank (Turbinella pyrum Linne), on the chertrum coin of Bhutan
Looking for photo

Turbinella pyrum
    • Imperial Volute (Cymbiola imperialis Linne) on the 1 sentimo Philippine coin (1983-1993)

Cymbiola imperialis
    • Triton's Trumpet (Charonia tritonis Linne), on the 2 vatu Vanuatu coin

Charonia tritonis
    • Spider Conch (Lambis), on the 1 cent Tuvalu coin

Lambis lambis
    • RatCowrie (Cypraea stercoraria Linne), on the 1 cedi Ghana coin

Cypraea stercoraria
    • Queen Conch (Strombus gigas Linne), on the 1 dollar Bahamas silver dollar

Strombus gigas
*For more examples of coins bearing a molluscan image, please visit Guido Poppe's excellent site "Conchology.be"


  • Stamps from many countries feature various species of molluscs. Today there are over 5,000 stamps depicting seashells, and quite a few people collect them!


WWW Sites on Stamps bearing the molluscan image:

  • Conchology:  by Guido Poppe:  Go to Shell Related then Stamps: "There are over 5080 stamps figured, 1600 details highlighted. You can search by country, by theme, family, species etc... Each stamps is documented (when you click on it).
    This database has been compiled by philatelist Tom Walker from Great Britain. He will be delighted to receive news from fellow collectors who may detect stamps not listed as yet, or just to have contact with you to discuss the many topics around this fascinating hobby.
  • Cone Shells on Stamps: by Dr. Bruce Livett: "“Tom Walker (tom@tmwalker.co.uk) has created the following resource detailing countries where particular species of cone shells are illustrated on stamps.    This comprehensive catalogue now has illustrations of nearly every stamp. Click on the particular Country to view. Tom is always happy for new collectors to contact him."  This is one of Dr. Bruce Livett’s sites from Grimwade Laboratories.
  • Cone Shells From Around the World Stamps:  Another great stamp page by Dr. Bruce Livett

Books on Stamps bearing the molluscan image:

  • A Checklist of Mollusks on Postage Stamps: by Tom Rice (Of Sea and Shore)
  • Stanley Gibbons: Collect Shells on Stamps