American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

African Money


Although the rulers of the great Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, which flourished between AD 270 and 630, produced their own round coinage to facilitate trade with the Roman and Byzantine Empires, many regions of Africa less closely linked to the Mediterranean world and its concepts of money developed their own local currencies.

As early as the 14th century, cowrie shells were used in West Africa, and elsewhere, as a form of money for local transactions. By the 17th century, cowries had become so popular that European traders began to ship the shells from India to supply the West African economy. Because of its value as a commodity, bars of salt were also frequently used to make payments and, from the 18th century on, could be converted into European trade currencies.

Large iron and copper ingots hammered into a variety of different forms, ranging from twisted Kissi "pennies" to representions of farm implements to jewelry, were produced both as stones and displays of wealth. The shaping of the ingots indicated the quality of the metal and gave proof that it could be worked. These forms of wealth were not only useful for mundane market exchange, but also had important social and ritual functions in native African societies. In many cases, they were required as gifts to cement the relationship between husbands and the parents of their brides.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European style coinages (see Case 12) and paper currency circulated alongside most of these native forms of money.