Cowry, or cowrie, beads are a prehistoric tradition used to designate wealth, rank, religious connections and as an exchange medium. Cowry beads and fragments are found on all continents. Most are fashioned from the gastropod family Cypraeidae.
Etymologically, the word "bead" comes from a Middle English word, "bede," meaning "prayer." Cowry beads held great religious significance for many cultures. Some cowry creations were worshiped and respected as divinity.
The kings of the Bamum region of Cameroon not only controlled the distribution and use of cowry beads, but also the craftsmen who worked with them. Rulers of the Kuba Kingdom in Zaire commissioned extravagant costumes made of beads and cowry shells, which would eventually become their burial outfits.
Cowry beads were the first known medium of exchange. As currency, they traveled far from their origins. Tracing these beads as currency helps archeologists study prehistoric trade routes.
Because cowry beads were used by royalty and as monetary exchange, they were considered a sign of wealth and prosperity. A symbolic status symbol for many, elaborate jewelry was made from these shells as displays of abundant prosperity.
In the late stone age, cowry beads were prevalent along coastal areas. The Chinese and Egyptians imported beads from the coasts, and they spread with trade routes. There is cowry evidence in the far flung locales of Cyprus, Japan, China, Egypt and the Pacific Northwest. An abundance of cowry shells is still found around the Indian Ocean.