Spondylus: the sacred red gold of pre-Columbian Andean cultures


  • The Spondylus Shell: symbolism, continental trading and social distinction into the American pre-Columbian context:

In all human societies, there are objects or materials charged with exotic properties. This does not only rely on their non-common composition, but on difficulties implied on accessing them. Through these objects -by themselves or with a kind of manufacture in gold, silver, any other metal alloy or multiple rate of materials- individuals were supposed to show their prestige and status as leaders within the community, pointing the distinction of roles and functions during life and death. As Joanne Pillsbury clearly remark: “one of the best documented examples of this is the use of the marine bivalve Spondylus in the central Andean region” (Pillsbury 1996: 313).


The Spondylus is a warm-water mollusk that inhabits, and can be found, the tropical ocean water in different places of the world. There are especially two species of Spondylus that were and continue being relevant in the South American and Mesoamerican context: Spondylus Princeps and Spondylus Calcifer.  In the American continent, the Spondylus natural habitat “extends from the Gulf of California to southern Ecuador and Cabo Blanco on the north coast of Peru” (Bauer and Lunniss 2010: 76). Although this shell could be located in multiple areas, historical references took by first Europeans during colonial times in South America indicate that the Spondylus extraction and its work in decorative and luxury objects were developed in the current Ecuadorian coast, particularly in the province of Manabí. From this place, the Spondylus spread to relatively close regions in the current Peru -particularly relevant fragments found with different formats in archeological sites of northern Peruvian places (Martin 2010, 113) -, and to more remote locations, such as the modern Mexican territory -pieces of Spondylus have been identified in Quetzacóatl Temple and Moon Pyramid where the ancient Teotihuacan was settled (Carot and Hers 2016, 29-30).


In fact, as Judith Davidson remarked in her study on Chimu culture, there are evidence that ancient people of northern regions of Peru started to import Spondylus more than 4000 years ago, having a constant exchange with inhabitants of the coastal Ecuador (Davidson 1980, VII). Nevertheless, according with Alexander Martin’s research on the domestic economy of pre-Columbian villages located in the Ecuadorian coast, this trade experienced an important increase around the 750 A.D. (Martin 2010, 117). As defined in Benjamin Carter’s research, between the 700 and the 1100 A. D. represented a period when coastal communities of Ecuador intensified the production of manufactures made of Spondylus, mainly as beads and chaquiras (Carter 2011, 75). Also, according to archeological records corresponding to the extraction and manufacture of the Spondylus, the presence of this material is minimal, something that has been interpreted as an indicator that people found more “rentable” to trade than to use the mollusk (Jaramillo 2016, 81).


In this context, based on archeological research and on some evidences given by the iconography produced in different South American and Mesoamerican cultures, there were different groups of people in the Ecuadorian coast that were experienced in the harvest and the manufacture of the Spondylus. Furthermore, around this shell a networking was established, in which specialized sailors, merchants and divers participated (Carot and Hers 2016, 33); as well as some organized shell-working craftsmen (Currie 1995, 522). At this point, the activity related with the Spondylus got relevance in the symbolic field, when in different artistic expressions started to appear references to characters involved in this process. There are especially great amounts of pieces in different materials, that were found in former territories controlled by Lambayeque and Chimu cultures, in the contemporary north-Peru. As Antonio Jaramillo emphasizes, in these scenes replicated by people either in the Andean region or in Mexican territory, the Spondylus was usually represented by a toothed semicircle with internal marks, trying to highlight the characteristic spines of the mollusk (Jaramillo 2016, 83-84).


The image of the Harvest of Spondylus or the Spondylus Shell Diving was the most common representation found in different objects. A range of diverse materials -gold, silver, minerals, wood, etc. - were used to recreate this relatively sacred moment, and for different purposes: jewelry, architectural decoration, textiles, etc. In this depiction, two characters are seated in a raft[1], holding and helping two specialized divers that are immersed in the sea, collecting the mollusk (Wester La Torre 2016, 73). Also, the Spondylus diver can be encountered in multiple pottery vessels produced by pre-Columbian communities along the Pacific Coast of the American continent. One of the most striking characteristics of these illustrations is that the profiled person wears multiple ornamental accessories, such as jewelry. This attribute probably shows the distinctive status of people that were involved in the collection of Spondylus, particularly the use of objects as earspools or necklaces made of shells beads (Carot and Hers 2016, 37-38).


Along multiple archeological sites in the American continent, particularly in the current territory of Peru and within burial places, researchers have found traces of Spondylus “in the form of whole shells or as beads or pendants on jewelry” (Tiballi 2010, 152). Most probably, either on daily life or in ritual context, Spondylus was used by elite groups of pre-Columbian societies in places where it has been possible to find fragments of it. It is significant to remark that, for ancient inhabitants of the Andean region, the Spondylus shell was more appreciated or valued than other materials such as gold or silver. Indeed, as Susan Bergh underlines, “the shell was a form of wealth, a badge of prestige, and a basis of power” (Bergh 2012: 223). Regarding the high value of Spondylus among pre-Columbian communities, Elizabeth Currie has referenced an excerpt of a Spanish chronicle[2] written in 1527 by Francisco de Xerez, when Pizarro´s expedition guided by Bartolomé Ruiz captured a native “ship” in the coast of Ecuador (Currie 1995: 511):


“…And they were carrying many items of silver and of gold personal ornament to exchange with those with whom they were going to trade, including crowns and diadems and belts and gauntlets and leg armour and breast-plates and tweezers and jingling bells and strings and bunches of beads and rosecleres and mirrors mounted with the said silver, and cups and other drinking vessels; they carried many mantles of wool and of cotton, and shirts and aljubas and alaremes and many other garments, most of them embroidered and richly worked in colors of scarlet and crimson, and blue and yellow, and of all other colors in different kind of work and figures of birds and animals and fish and trees; and they brought some tiny weights to weigh gold, like Roman workmanship, and many other things. On some strings beads there were some small stones of emerald and chalcedony, and other stones and pieces of crystal and ánime. All this they brought to exchange for some shells from which they make coral red and white beads…”[3]


However, the high value given to this shell by ancient inhabitants of the American continent was not only related to the aim of social distinction of clearly stratified and hierarchical social bodies. Even, this importance could not be mainly explained due to the use of this mollusk “in ritual exchange… used as a form of currency throughout much of coastal Ecuador” (Bauer 2007: 40). Rather, the significance given by American natives -included the Inca Empire- to the Spondylus may have come from ritual functions that they assigned to this sea-shell. In general, pre-Columbian people attributed the bivalve mollusk “the power of fecundity”; they used this object also such as “an essential ingredient of rain-making rites because it comes from the sea, conceived as the ultimate source of water that cycles through the cosmos” (Bergh 2012: 223). In this regard, it is relevant to mention the central role that water had, and still have, in the Andean culture, being an important component for the social structure on account of its weight for agricultural processes.


As Jhon Murra pointed in his research of the Inca State, one of the highest interests of Andean societies was around the corn crop and how to acclimatize this process in highlands, where there is a continuous presence of frosts and dryness. Therefore, it was symbolically essential the performing of a great amount of rituals associated to water. During these ceremonies, the principal object offered to gods as sacrifice was the Spondylus, demanding favorable climate conditions for the harvest and health (Murra 1999: 49). Even, it seems that “on some occasions ground shell and beads were thrown into fields to promote agricultural fertility” (Blower 2000: 210). Hence, the sea-shell acquired a symbolism really close to fertility, not just in agricultural sense but also connected with the human sexuality and wellness. Actually, it seems that some pre-Columbian societies made associations between the Spondylus morphology and the female genitalia “due to its physical appearance and color… which then justifies its association with women, sexuality, birth/new life, regeneration and nature and human fertility” (Ferraro 2019: 7). Similarly, the morphology of this mollusk, with external spines and secondary teeth, “may have played a part in the attraction of Spondylus as an indicator of strength and protection” (Pillsbury 1996: 318).


Likewise, there is another fundamental element that placed the Spondylus into the circuit of most valuable materials for pre-Columbian cultures along America. The bivalve mollusk worked as an object linked with deities. In fact, into the Andean mythology the Spondylus was known as the Food of Gods, especially in Quechua culture in which it “is offered to a powerful god, Maca Uisa, who eats the shellfish” (Glowacki 2005: 260). According to a Quechua Huarochiri manuscript, Tupac Inca Yupanqui asked for the help of gods to defeat enemies of the Inca Empire, being Maca Uisa the only deity that assisted him. As a sign of gratefulness, the Inca emperor offered this god multiple gifts, including food. In a chronicle by Francisco de Ávila in 1598, and mentioned by Pillsbury, immediately the Inca emperor served food, the deity said “I am not in the habit of eating stuff like this… bring me some thorny oyster shells (Spondylus)” (Pillsbury 1996: 318).  Based on this narrative, it is clear that the Spondylus worked in pre-Columbian societies as an intermediary object between humans and gods, allowing the establishment of reciprocal relations. Nevertheless, this connection with divinities were not for all members of the community, but exclusive for governors or individuals with a differentiated status.


Regarding different aspects above reviewed, it is obvious the relevant role that the Spondylus plays within the Andean culture. At the same time, archeological and historical remains provide evidences that introduce the bivalve mollusk, at least along the Andean region and the Mesoamerican context, into the group of objects which were considered as sumptuary by natives:


“they are highly esteemed and cherished for their rarity and for the intensive investment of labor, skill, or technological process in their manufacture and importation… sumptuary goods are convertible to prestige and power that surpasses their use value… craft items of exotic origin are considered to have an almost talismanic role in structuring the political interactions among geographically distant elites” (Goldstein 2000: 335)  


As previously pointed out, the Spondylus was used in ornamental objects and jewelry, elements worn by upper classes -and only reachable by them[4]-, whereby social hierarchies were highlighted. Thus, it is not surprising that the majority of Spondylus remains in archeological context were found in burial places: “interred with nobility” (Glowacki 2005, 257).


In north Peru, in the influence area of the Chimu culture, Davidson found a pattern of distribution of Spondylus in archeological places of Moche Valley, Viru Valley and Chicama Valley: burial and architectural contexts. Being more specific, “the quantity and diversity of the Spondylus found correlates with the architectural complexity and/or the richness of burial furnishings” (Davidson 1980: 16). As in many ancient societies, the disposition of the individual in the funerary framework indicates the status and the position occupied in the social body. In the particular case of the Chimu society, it seems that there were three concrete groups with access to the seashell: royalty, nobility and some selected craftsmen. Indeed, and following with Davidson’s research on Peruvian territory, the repartition of the mollusk along the society was a direct responsibility and privilege of the Chimu King, and also “it is possible that access to Spondylus and ownership of this shell marked rank and served as insignia of rank in the residences of lesser nobility” (Davidson 1980:20).


In the Samanco community, located in the Nepeña Valley in the Ancash department in Peru, there is another burial place with archeological remains that remark the importance that the shell had for pre-Columbian societies. In this case, that has been identified within the influence area of Chimu culture, the funerary space involves objects dated around 1470 A.D. In their research, Carter and Helmer exposed that Samanco elite’s tombs were constituted by a wide range of perforated ornaments, a total of 3583 -mostly in the form of chaquira-, that included: Spondylus, turquoise, chrysocolla, sodalite, quartz, copper, etc. Like some findings in other archeological sites, Spondylus chaquiras encountered in Samanco were especially and almost exclusively produced in Ecuadorian coast and traded with Chimu-Inka people (Carter and Helmer 2015: 55-56). Also, there is the presence of multiple Spondylus plaque pendants, but in this case combined with mother-of-pearl. About this type of work, it seems that this technique was developed in different places along the Pacific coast of South America, including wide areas of current Peruvian and Ecuadorian territories. Even, archeological evidence proves that the spread of plaque pendants by trade reached long distances, because necklaces composited with them have been found not only in coastal places, but also in highlands of Andes region (Carter and Helmer: 63). In Samanco, archeologists eventually recovered six whole Spondylus of the princeps variety, with two perforations each one, that were used as jewelry -necklace or pectoral- by the Chimu upper class, being the “central component of the dress of these elite” (Carter and Helmer: 66). 


Besides already mentioned recoveries, there is another interesting example into a funerary context developed in the north region of Peru. In this case, it involves the tomb of the called “Spondylus character” and his three accompanists in the Chornancap place, located in the influence area of the Lambayeque culture. Around the main figure in the burial scene, multiple offerings were placed, among which ten whole Spondylus stand out close to the skull and many Spondylus breastplates. At the same time, along the tomb were displayed numerous ceramic vessels and a variety of tools that were usually used into the Spondylus harvest (Wester La Torre 2016: 65-68). Surrounding the secondary characters of the tomb, it is also highlighted the presence of whole specimens of the bivalve shell and many beads. In its entirety, the disposition of all these elements -added the appearance of other materials as mother-of-pearl, turquoise or nacre shell- was supposed to express the privileged status and power connections owned by the main character (Wester La Torre 2016: 75). However, it is important to indicate that this exceptional position, as well as the prestige possessed by the Spondylus character, was probably given due to his activity into the community. The individual, interred with an unusual amount and variety of Spondylus pieces and vessels, undoubtedly partook into the process of collection and trade of the cherished mollusk, being part of the specialized group that was involved in local, regional and continental dynamics as supplier of luxury and distinctive goods for high ranked humans and deities (Carot and Hers 2016, 48).


  • Conclusions:


Regarding aspects above reviewed about the Spondylus among different pre-Columbian communities, it is possible to infer that this shell had an important role in the establishment of varied dynamics concerning the development and operation of social structures. Firstly, it is fundamental to mention that not all groups located in the influence area of the Andean culture -along the Andes region and the Pacific coast from Chile to Mexico- had direct access to this object, as a result of particular conditions in which the mollusk can be found. This special attribute promoted the settlement of specific places with specialized individuals focused in different stages of the Spondylus: diving, collection, manufacturing, sailing, trading, etc. Based on archeological research, it seems that communities throughout the current Ecuadorian coast, especially in the Manabi province, were those that performed these activities, providing with Spondylus and its products to other people. The permanent exchange and the contact with other cultures, permitted the formation of an upper class that was in continuous relationships with local and regional royalties or nobilities.


Nevertheless, the described structure in the last paragraph, with all its mechanisms and dynamics, needed to be supported by something that increases the demand of Spondylus between the Andean societies. At this point, the symbology displayed and backed by the hegemonic culture played the most important role. The values set as a basis and foundation of the society in the Andean region required of the seashell to keep the order into the social body, and to guarantee all benefits of the collective life. Thus, the attachment between the Spondylus, due to its sea origins and the perceived capacity of control of the environment provoking or ensuring rains for the crops, were fundamental features that positioned this shell into the list of most valued or appreciated items for Andean people. The symbolic logic provided the Spondylus, located at remote and relatively inaccessible places, with a power for promoting the fertility of the ground. It was the intermediate element between the human world and the goodness of nature gods.


In this cultural context, it is reasonable that the possession of a sumptuary and sacred good as the Spondylus was a signal or an indication of social distinction. Moreover, the access to this type of objects was not allowed for all members of the group. As the archeological remains demonstrate, especially through the recoveries in burial places, those who owned jewelry, ornamental objects or whole specimens of the shell were individuals that possessed a privileged status into the community. As previously mentioned, normally just the royalty, the nobility and a small group of specialized craftsmen were the only ones involved in the network of distribution and use of Spondylus. Besides, it seems that in some cultures, as in the Chimu culture, the most valued individual of society had the last decision about who is allowed and who is restricted to possess the bivalve mollusk.


Finally, it is important to remark that the importance of the Spondylus into the Andean region continued after the Spanish conquer and colony of South American territory, process that began after the arrival of Pizarro’s expedition to the modern Ecuadorian coast around 1526. Natives kept participating in rituals and ceremonies in which the Spondylus was offered as the main element of sacrifice. Surely, these activities had to be pursued and punished by the Catholic Church, pointing them as a transgression to the evangelizing process. Also, it is necessary to highlight that, in the current days, the Spondylus keep a high symbolic value for many communities along the Ecuadorian coast, especially for inhabitants of the little village of Salango, in the Manabi province. In this place, until the present, local people develop their activities around the mollusk, developing an artisanal craft production. But, the performing of these works, besides representing a source of income for members of the community, and as emphasized by Bauer while citing Garcia Canclini, “is often viewed as a material representation of cultural identity because what is involved are objects, methods of production, and designs rooted in the community’s history” (Bauer 2007: 41)




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[1] In some cases, especially in objects found in north Peru, characters seated in the raft were not human representations. Instead, there were references to divinities depicted by hybrid creatures with animal extremities (Jaramillo 2016: 86).

[2] Although this work is focused in the importance of the Spondylus during the period before the Spanish conquer of America, it is appropriate to mention that some chronicles show the continuity of this high appreciation that natives had around the mollusk during the colony. In chronicles of the Father Arriaga, cited by Davidson, Spanish colonisers mentioned that indigenous individuals “apprehended with any amount of Spondylus shell in their possesion… items known by the priests to have been used in indigenous religious ceremonies, this Indian was given as punishment one hundred lashes; his hair was also shorn” (Davidson 1980, 29).

[3] As is pointed by Paulsen, and it is important to remark, in the period of higher amounts of exchange between the coastal Ecuador people and the other American cultures, between the 700 and the 1532 A.D., those who trade with the Spondylus started to “receive obsidian and copper” (Paulsen 1974: 602). These materials had a high value for the inhabitants of the Ecuadorian coast, because they stemmed from far places.

[4] Actually, Susan Bergh emphasizes that in the Wari culture -located in the northern region of Peru between 600 and 1200 A. D. -, elites used Spondylus objects to “legitimize their earthly authority” (Bergh 2012:223). Something similar happened in the Chimu culture, in which the archeological records clearly demonstrate that “there is a strong relationship between these shells and the upper levels of Chimu society than the lower levels” (Davidson 1980: 6).