Spondylus: The Pre-Columbian Use of the Thorny Oyster

Spondylus princeps, the Spiny Oyster

Kevin Walsh/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Spondylus, otherwise known as the "thorny oyster" or "spiny oyster", is a bivalve mollusk found in the warm waters of most of the oceans of the world. The Spondylus genus has about 76 species living worldwide, three of which are of interest to archaeologists. Two spondylus species from the Pacific Ocean (Spondylus princeps and S. calcifer) held important ceremonial and ritual significance to many of the prehistoric cultures of South, Central, and North America. S. gaederopus, native to the Mediterranean Sea, played an important role in the trade networks of the European Neolithic. This article summarizes information about both regions.

American Thorny Oysters

S. princeps is called "spiny oyster" or "ostra espinosa" in Spanish, and the Quechua (Inca language) word is "mullu" or "muyu". This mollusk is characterized by large, spine-like protuberances on its outer shell, which varies in color from pink to red to orange. The inside of the shell is pearly, but with a thin band of coral red near the lip. S. princeps is found as single animals or in small groups within rocky outcrops or coral reefs at depths up to 50 meters (165 feet) below sea level. Its distribution is along the coastal Pacific Ocean from Panama to north-western Peru.

S. calcifer's outer shell is red and white variegated. It can exceed 250 millimeters (about 10 inches) across, and lacks the spiny projections seen in S. princeps, having instead a high-crowned top valve that is relatively smooth. The bottom shell generally lacks the distinct coloration associated with S. princeps, but its interior has a reddish-purple or orange band along its inner margin. This mollusk lives in large concentrations at fairly shallow depths from the Gulf of California to Ecuador.

Andean Spondylus Use

Spondylus shell first appears in Andean archaeological sites dated to the Preceramic Period V [4200-2500 BCE], and the shellfish was consistently used up until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Andean people used spondylus shell as complete shells in rituals, cut into pieces and used as inlay in jewelry, and ground into powder and used as architectural decoration. Its form was carved into stone and made into pottery effigies; it was worked into body adornments and placed in burials.

Spondylus is associated with water shrines in the Wari and Inca empires, at sites such as Marcahuamachucot, Viracochapampa, Pachacamac, Pikillacta, and Cerro Amaru. At Marcahuamachucot was recovered an offering of about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of spondylus shells and shell fragments, and small turquoise figurines carved in the shape of spondylus.

The main trade route for spondylus in South America was along the Andean mountain routes which were precursors to the Inca road system, with secondary pathways branching down the river valleys; and perhaps partially by boat along the coasts.

Spondylus Workshops

Although evidence of shell-working is known in the Andean highlands, workshops are also known to have been located much nearer their source beds along the Pacific coast. In coastal Ecuador, for example, several communities have been identified with pre-hispanic procurement and production of spondylus shell beads and other goods which were part of extensive trade networks.

In 1525, Francisco Pizarro's pilot Bartolomeo Ruiz met an indigenous balsa wood craft sailing off the Ecuadoran coast. Its cargo included trade goods of silver, gold, textiles, and seashells, and they told Ruiz they came from a place known as Calangane. Research conducted near the city of Salango in that region indicated that it has been an important center of spondylus procurement for at least as long as 5,000 years.

Archaeological research in the Salango region indicates spondylus was first exploited beginning during the Valdivia phase [3500-1500 BCE], when beads and worked rectangular pendants were made and traded to the Ecuadoran interior. Between 1100 and 100 BCE, the produced items increased in complexity, and small figurines and red and white beads were traded to the Andean highlands for copper and cotton. Beginning about 100 BCE, trade in Ecuadoran spondylus reached the Lake Titicaca region in Bolivia.

Charlie Chaplin Figurines

Spondylus shell also was also part of the extensive North American pre-Columbian trade network, finding its way into far-flung places in the form of beads, pendants, and unworked valves. Ritually significant spondylus objects such as the so-called "Charlie Chaplin" figurines have been found in several Maya sites dated between the Pre-Classic to Late Classic periods.

Charlie Chaplin figurines (referred to in the literature as gingerbread cut-outs, anthropomorphic figurines, or anthropomorphic cut-outs) are small, crudely-shaped human forms lacking much detail or gender identification. They are found primarily in ritual contexts such as burials, and dedicatory caches for stelae and buildings. They aren't just made of spondylus: Charlie Chaplins are also made of jade, obsidian, slate, or sandstone, but they are almost always in ritual contexts.

They were first identified in the late 1920's by the American archaeologist E.H. Thompson who noted that the outline of the figurines reminded him of the British comic director in his Little Tramp guise. The figurines range between 2-4 centimeters (.75-1.5 inches) in height, and they are humans carved with their feet pointing outward and arms folded across the chest. They have crude faces, sometimes simply two incised lines or round holes representing eyes, and noses identified by triangular incision or punched holes.

Diving for Spondylus

Because spondylus lives so far below sea level, retrieving them requires experienced divers. The earliest known illustration of spondylus diving in South America comes from drawings on pottery and murals during the Early Intermediate Period [~200 BCE-CE 600]: they likely represent S. calcifer and the images probably were of people diving off the coast of Ecuador.

American anthropologist Daniel Bauer conducted ethnographic studies with modern shell-workers at Salango in the early 21st century, before over-exploitation and climate change caused a crash in shellfish population and resulted in a fishing ban in 2009. Modern Ecuadoran divers collect spondylus using oxygen tanks; but some use a traditional method, holding their breaths for up to 2.5 minutes to dive to the shell beds 4-20 m (13-65 ft) below the surface of the sea.

Trade in shell appears to have dropped off after the 16th-century arrival of the Spanish: Bauer suggests that the modern revival of trade in Ecuador was encouraged by the American archaeologist Pressley Norton, who showed the local people the objects he found in the archaeological sites. Modern shell workers use mechanical grinding tools to make pendants and beads for the tourist industry.

The Food of the Gods?

Spondylus was known as the "Food of the Gods", according to a Quechua myth recorded in the 17th century. Some debate exists among scholars as to whether this meant that the gods consumed spondylus shells, or the flesh of the animal. American archaeologist Mary Glowacki (2005) makes an interesting argument that the effects of eating spondylus shell meat out of season may have made them an essential part of religious ceremonies.

Between the months of April and September, the flesh of spondylus is toxic to humans, a seasonal toxicity recognized in most shellfish called Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP). PSP is caused by toxic algae or dinoflagellates consumed by shellfish during those months, and typically it is at its most toxic following the appearance of the algae bloom known as the "red tide". Red tides are associated with El Niño oscillations, themselves associated with catastrophic storms.

The symptoms of PSP include sensory distortions, euphoria, loss of muscular control, and paralysis, and, in the most severe cases, death. Glowacki suggests that purposefully eating spondylus during the wrong months may well have effected a hallucinogenic experience associated with shamanism, as an alternative to other forms of hallucinogens such as cocaine.

European Neolithic Spondylus

Spondylus gaederopus lives in the eastern Mediterranean, at depths between 6-30 m (20-100 ft). Spondylus shells were prestige goods showing up in burials within the Carpathian basin by the Early Neolithic period (6000-5500 cal BCE). They were used as whole shells or cut into pieces for ornaments, and they are found in graves and hoards associated with both sexes. At the Serbian site of Vinca in the middle Danube valley, spondylus were found with other shell species such as Glycymeris in contexts dated to 5500-4300 BCE, and as such are thought to have been part of the trade network from the Mediterranean region.

By the Middle to Late Neolithic, the number and size of spondylus shell pieces sharply drop off, found in archaeological sites of this time period as tiny pieces of inlay in necklaces, belts, bracelets, and anklets. In addition, limestone beads appear as imitations, suggesting to scholars that the sources of spondylus dried up but the symbolic importance of the shell had not.

Oxygen isotope analysis supports scholars' contentions that the sole source of the central European spondylus was the Mediterranean, specifically the Aegean and/or Adriatic coasts. Shell workshops were recently identified at the late Neolithic site of Dimini in Thessaly, where over 250 worked spondylus shell fragments were recorded. Finished objects were found in other locations throughout the settlement, but Halstead (2003) argues that the distribution suggests that the amount of production waste indicates that the artifacts were being produced for trade into central Europe.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Spondylus: The Pre-Columbian Use of the Thorny Oyster." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/precolumbian-use-of-the-thorny-oyster-170123. Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, September 3). Spondylus: The Pre-Columbian Use of the Thorny Oyster. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/precolumbian-use-of-the-thorny-oyster-170123 Hirst, K. Kris. "Spondylus: The Pre-Columbian Use of the Thorny Oyster." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/precolumbian-use-of-the-thorny-oyster-170123 (accessed June 8, 2023).