Abstract

This article sketches the rise and fall of the use of cowrie shells in eastern Eurasia from the archaeological period to the nineteenth century. Originating in the sea, especially in the region of the Maldive islands, cowrie shells migrated to various parts of Asia as precious goods in the prehistoric era and later became a commodity and currency. By focusing on their experiences in Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian societies, this article illustrates the significance of these shells in a cross-regional context, analyzes the transformation of their functions over the longue durée, and discusses some local and global issues, such as why cowrie shells failed to develop into a common currency in early China.

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