The DRC has access to the Atlantic Ocean. If cowrie shells come from the Atlantic, they may have had easy access to them. However, from the late 15th century, the Kuba people had access to the following trade routes: Portuguese, European Bead Distribution routes (Venice, Amsterdam), Saharan Caravan Routes (First and Secondary) and Equatorial Routes. These shells could also have come to the DRC through these new routes.
Cowrie shells hold specific meanings for the Kuba people and have symbolic significance. They represent fertility and health, power and prestige. They are also associated with wealth and social, political, or spiritual authority which is why beadwork is worn by chiefs and dignitaries. In addition to their aesthetic and cultural value, these shells have been used as a medium of exchange.
These shells are one of the earliest forms of natural ornamentation. As an object for special ceremonial occasions, they are closely associated with individual and group identity, as well as social position or status. Beaded crowns and other regalia used by West African royalty are made by male professional beaders. Often these craft makers also use small glass seed beads imported from Venice to make their wares. It is believed that royal or religious regalia is so powerful that it can only be made by a man. A woman’s body might have a bad effect on them and hence on the divinity of the kingship.
Art is everything to the Kuba people who live in the transitional area between the great grasslands of south central Africa and the rainforests near the equator. Their artistry of adornment is unmatched in Africa and they are among the best known in Africa for the splendor of their royal and chieftaincy regalia. Above all, the Kuba are known for their use of European glass beads and cowries.