Just in from the New York Times Sunday Magazine -- a discussion of the history of currency! Cowrie Shells and Wampum feature prominently: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/magazine/2013/innovations-issue/#/?part=currency
From the article:
Cowrie shells “have been used as money for at least as long, and in at least as many parts of the world, as coins have,” Catherine Eagleton, a curator at the British Museum, says. The thumbnail-size shells — Latin name: Cypraea moneta — were used in China as far back as the 16th century B.C., as well as in India and Africa. Cowries have a lot going for them as money: they’re uniform, they’re a convenient size, they’re hard to counterfeit. They were a relatively stable currency in Africa until the 19th century, when another cowrie shell, the Monetaria annulus, appeared in huge quantities, helping to trigger massive inflation that all but wiped out what remained of the shell economy.
Now the real question is whether the NY Times let me pay for my subscription next month in Cowrie Shells.....?