Were cowries the original Bitcoin? Fascinating new book and museum exhibit reveals global influence of mollusks


When the spiraling white shell of a precious gole trap was auctioned off in 1750, the highest bidder was none other than the Germanic Roman Emperor, who paid no less than 4,000 guilders for the two-inch treasure. long. The extraordinary sum, equivalent to $ 114,000 today, was a tribute to the delicate beauty of the goletrap, but it had more to do with the alleged rarity of the seashell. Apart from a few royal collections, there were hardly any gole traps to be found in all of Europe. And in the days of conchylomania, which emphasized exotic seashells imported from distant shores, 4,000 guilders might have been a bargain.

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Less than a century later, the business did not look so enviable. Precious gole traps had been found in the sands of the Red Sea in the southwestern Pacific. At an 1822 auction, a “very perfect specimen” sold for just eight pounds, the equivalent of $ 1,200. Now they sell for around $ 10 on eBay.

The story of goletrap is one of many told by Cynthia Barnett in The sound of the sea, a fascinating new book that explores topics ranging from colonialism to ocean acidification in relation to seashells. “From the shell cults of prehistoric times to the sheer number of shellfish-inspired Pokémon characters, no creature has garnered human admiration for so long or so intimately,” she writes. “It is striking how many times they have led us to clarify truths in dark times. “

Barnett first became interested in seashells when he visited the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in Florida, which collected an abundance of gole trap species among its half-million specimens of clams, conch and cowries from the whole world: a treasure that would certainly have impressed the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and other shellfish lovers ranging from Catherine the Great to Rembrandt. (A spectacular new exhibition of high-resolution seashell photographs would also have given Rembrandt some artistically inspired oceans.) Taken together, the museum and the book reinforce the aesthetic admiration that is our heritage and give seashells the serious attention they deserve. ‘they deserve in this trouble.

The most urgent information that shells can provide is environmental. Species such as the giant clam record past climatic conditions in the growth patterns of their shells and the minerals these shells preserve. Many shellfish also serve as indicator species, often revealing changes in ocean ecology before environmentalists can detect the changes directly.

But seashells are just as good at telling us about ourselves. As precious gole traps and other exotic tropical species sparked bidding wars among a European elite obsessed with exclusivity, common cowries supported world trade because of their abundance and uniformity.

Cowries came from the Maldives, found amidst coral reefs. The Maldives were particularly rich in a species of cowries, which Carl Linnaeus aptly named Cypraea moneta and which is now known as Monetaria moneta. The shell of this cowrie was small and smooth, suitable for transport as ballast in the hulls of ships, and nearly impossible to forge. Because the Maldives were conveniently located along global trade routes, the cowrie was ideally placed to become a global trading token.

As Barnett documents, silver cowries were used in this way before the rise of the Roman Empire and were still circulating in parts of Africa in the early 20th century.e century, making it the longest circulating currency in human history. Since world trade often included colonization and slavery, Monetaria moneta also collected alternative names such as blood silver and inspired myths including the belief that cowries followed slave ships to feed on the dead.

While gole traps have the potential to reveal obscure aspects of human psychology related to status, cowries can tell us a lot about the obscurity of commerce, from the commodities market to bitcoin. Before being used as currency, cowries were amulets believed to have magical powers related to fertility and fortune, presumably based on visual resemblance to female genitalia in one orientation and the human eye in it. other. (To avoid unhappiness, people have sought to distract the evil eye with an anatomical decoy.) The transition from magic to money suggests the mystical quality of money, which holds value based on a shared belief in this value. (On the other hand, the fall in the price of goletrap shows the precariousness of pecuniary beliefs.)

The fact that cowries are no longer used in commerce is probably for the best, given their bloody history and also the environmental impact of their harvest. However, there may be lessons we can learn from cowries beyond what they reveal about money in relation to magic, opportunism, and exploitation. Although silver cowries are more resilient than many oceanic species, their coral habitat is increasingly threatened by climate change, a factor that is sure to impact their populations. In addition, their shells are made up of minerals that will dissolve as atmospheric carbon dioxide swells, increasing the acidity of seawater. Like all other species, these are environmental indicators. Establishing a cowry standard would reconnect currency and trade with the environment that supports trade and provides wealth. The value of this money would be precisely indexed to global ecology.

Of course, as the masterful collection of Bailey-Matthews shows, silver cowries are just one of more than fifty thousand living mollusc species, astonishing for their biodiversity. All of these are immeasurably valuable, and not just as trade tokens, collectibles, and weather indicators. Seashells are an integral part of human culture, but our appreciation will only be complete when we are able to appreciate them in their own right.



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