For millennia, Spondylus, commonly referred to as the 'thorny oyster', has played a significant role in elite and ritual activity of a number of New World cultures. In pre-Columbian times, these molluscs were highly valued by Andean and Mesoamerican societies. There is even some indication that peoples of the Southwest, Caribbean, and possibly Florida, also cherished and revered this shellfish. In the Andes, Spondylus held great importance throughout its prehistory and among many different cultures. The shell was used as inlay for fine jewellery and other decorative ornamentation of the upper class, interred with nobility, placed in offerings to the gods, and even depicted with deities, some of which apparently found Spondylus to be a most desirable food. It is this latter aspect, the consumption of Spondylus, that is the focus of this paper.
While various theories have been offered to explain why this shellfish was so highly valued among early highland South American societies, recent research indicates that its use as a mind- and body-altering drug many have been a key factor. Consuming the flesh of Spondylus under certain conditions could have produced psychotropic experiences and other related reactions, which early societies of ancient Peru may have viewed as a vehicle for spiritual communication. This shellfish may have come to symbolise spiritual transcendence, a highly coveted power intimately tied to the realm of the ancestors. This article presents these findings and their implications for interpreting the use of Spondylus among Andean South American cultures.
Spondylus, the thorny oyster
Spondylus is a spiny bivalve found in warm, semi-deep waters of different oceans of the world. Relevant to this article is the Spondylus occurring in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador and north-western Peru. In Andean South America, there are two species of Spondylus found in archaeological contexts--Spondylus calcifer, which is red and white variegated with a reddish-purple band around the inner margin of the valves, and Spondylus princeps, which is solid red (Figure 1). The former is found from the Gulf of California to Ecuador, the latter from Panama to north-western Peru (Abbott 1974: 450-1; Keen 1971: 96-8).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Spondylus calcifer occurs in fairly large concentrations at relatively shallow depths, making it easier to harvest by free diving methods than Spondylus princeps, which is found as single shells or in small clusters at depths of up to 50m below sea level. The sheer quantity of Spondylus shell recovered from archaeological sites throughout the Andean region makes it seem improbable that the Ecuadorian littoral was its single source. In fact, research indicates that extensive trade networks involving Spondylus connected the Pacific coast of South America and Mesoamerica during prehistoric and historic times (Hocquenghem 1993; Marcos 1977-8, 1986, 2002; Paulsen 1974; Rostworowski de Diez Canseco 1970, 1975), explaining some of the similar contexts and inferred uses of Spondylus in both regions.
Spondylus use past and present
Spondylus appears in Andean archaeological sites as early as the Formative Period (c. 30002500 BC), though examples are few. It was increasingly used by various cultures through the Late Horizon (c. AD 1370-1532) (Paulsen 1974). Archaeological and historical data indicate Spondylus was used whole, cut up, or ground into powder (Acosta 1962 : 248; Cabello Balboa 1951 : 327; Carrion Cachot 1955:3 8; Murua 1987 : 422). It accompanied the elite to the afterlife as grave goods, as illustrated by the burials of the Middle Horizon component site of Cerro Amaru (Topic & Topic 1992: 172); it was worked into body adornments and trappings for nobility, such as those from the royal Moche Sipan burials (Alva & Donnan 1993: 60-3, 145-7, 169-71); it was ground into powder …