The Diffusion of Cowries and Egyptian Culture in Africa

(The following is a synopsis of mine that was published on the archive of American Anthropologist, the journal of the American Anthropological Association which has been published since 1888. You can reach the synopsis archive at The article itself can be found in most good libraries!)

Jeffreys, M. D. W. The Diffusion of Cowries and Egyptian Culture in Africa. American Anthropologist January-March, 1948 Vol.50(1):45-53.

M. D. W. Jeffreys’ article seeks to prove the influence of Egyptian trade and culture within Africa. By offering evidence of diffusion of cowries—a marine shell of the genus Cypraea native to the Eastern shores of Africa, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean—into West Africa as a monetary unit, special notations used within the context of that monetary system, and evidence of these systems being used in Egypt, Jeffreys attempts to link Egypt to several West African tribes—most notably the Ibo clan of Nigeria. Jeffreys argues that, because of similarities between counting systems in Egypt and the Ibo—as well as other groups in Western Africa—and the use of the non-native cowry as a medium of currency, the source of the Cowry and systems accompanying it originated from Egypt.

Jeffreys begins by describing the cowry and its origins—the East Indies, Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean—and information on the wide use of similar types of currency. He cites a good number of sources including Firth, Adams, Wallis, Blake, Dennet, Moore, and others, to show the wide use of it. He goes further to show that—by these citations and examples of stories and legends involving the cowry—the use of the cowry did not originate from Europe.

Next, Jeffreys goes into great detail about various counting notations used in the surrounding areas. Within the cowry counting system in use within the Ibo, a sexagesimal system was used, and this is linked to a similar system used in Egypt. He also goes on to prove that the systems used for the counting of cowries were probably not a native system. More citations are offered giving the impression that Egypt had been the sole distributor of the shells throughout India and China during its trade; when trading they would bring the shells to other countries as a form of currency, and therein, their sexagesimal system would later be absorbed.

He goes further to explain concepts dealing with diffusion to strengthen his claim, finally putting forth the idea that within the Ibo, the sexagesimal system of notation for the cowry originated from Egypt.

TAYLOR MEEK: University of Montana (John Norvell)

Cow"rie, Cow"ry (kou"r?), n.; pl. Cowries (-rz). [Hind. kaur.] Zool.

A marine shell of the genus Cypraea.

There are numerous species, many of them ornamental. Formerly C. moneta and several other species were largely used as money in Africa and some other countries, and they are still so used to some extent. The value is always trifling, and varies at different places.


© Webster 1913.

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