chapter  4
Commoditization, consumption, and interpretive complexity
The contingent role of cowries in the early modern world
ByBarbara J. Heath
Pages 21

In this chapter, the author explores the intersection of global systems of circulation with local consumer practices through the examination of cowries. The author's goal is to illustrate the processes through which things became commodified, how the movement of commodities was shaped by the complex political, economic, and social networks of emergent capitalism, and how consumers redefined the use and meaning of shells at the local and regional scales. Her three case studies draw on historic sources, archaeological assemblages, and ethnographic objects to reconstruct contexts of circulation and use at the 19th-century village of Saclo near the pre-colonial Dahomean city of Cana in Benin; urban centers and plantations in 18th-century Virginia; and burials associated with the Arikara village of Leavenworth in early 19th-century South Dakota. Understanding and interpreting the biographies of cowries illuminates the powerful role that even tiny shells played in constructing and shaping the modern world.