The global distribution of cowrie shells (Monetaria annulus and Monetaria moneta) attests to their exchange over long distances and their value in diverse cultural contexts. In addition to their commodification, cowries functioned as adornment, ritual, art and in the elaboration of both living and ancestral beings in many settings through time. Examining the circulation and usage of cowries in these different contexts facilitates an exploration of the ways in which a global commodity may carry, lose and acquire value. An ethnographic review of cowrie use in the hitherto overlooked context of southern Africa suggests that particular qualities of the shell imbued it with culturally specific value. It is suggested that cowries, as part of divination sets, were active in divination because of their white colour and their origin in the (maritime) ancestral realm that anchored divination in notions of ancestry, fertility and healing. Furthermore, in certain contexts, cowries were conceived of as animate objects, metonymically active in ‘cooling’ and healing. These observations, set within a broader discussion relating to archaeological approaches to the accumulation of value, indicate the importance of exploring alternative ontologies in the biographies of global commodities, and reveal the potential of a biographical ontology of the ‘ancestral’.