Bin Yang on the Global History of Cowries

In: Asian Review of World Histories
Dennis O. Flynn Pacific World History Institute San Francisco, CA USA

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Bin Yang correctly states that cowrie shells (250 species) and cowrie monies (two species mostly) deserve far more attention in global histories than they have received. He provides the most comprehensive view of the global history of cowries and cowrie monies to date. Multiple shell monies proliferated worldwide, but they did not concentrate within China (except Yunnan) nor within Europe. Why did specific cowries accumulate only in certain specific geographical locations? Yang establishes a general answer: cultural preferences for holding specific objects, including specific monies, determined where the shells were concentrated. He offers global evidence that, I argue, contradicts mainstream economic theory, which is based upon conceptual aggregation of diverse monies into amorphous stocks of (national or regional) money (singular). Yang demonstrates repeatedly that distinct market locations and distinct market prices existed for specific cowrie and other shell monies (plural) throughout global history. His evidence starkly demonstrates inadequacies of mainstream monetary theory (although he does not say as much). The relentless evidence of the existence of monetary disaggregation, evidence highlighted throughout Yang’s volume, demonstrates an urgent need for alternative monetary theories that portray prices and stocks of individual monies in conformity with empirical evidence provided by archival historians.

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