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The Return of the Native Symbol:
Peru Picks Spondylus to Represent New Integration with Ecuador

Daniel H. Sandweiss

Throughout much of the globe and for thousands of years, people have attributed special significance to shells of the genus Spondylus, aka the thorny oyster, or mullu in Quechua (the native language in much of the Andes). In the Mediterranean, in Melanesia, through much of the New World, and especially in Andean South America, the bright red and white, spiny Spondylus has a long history as an important religious icon and primitive valuable. Along the Pacific coast of South America, Spondylus grows only in the warm waters of the Ecuadorian coast, but it was traded south to Peru for at least 3,000 years. Since early Colonial times, however, Spondylus in the Andes has largely been viewed as a curio for collectors and an object for archaeological study. All that is changing now: the Peruvian government recently chose Spondylus to symbolize the new integration with Ecuador, and they did so for the right--archaeological--reasons.

In the Andean region, Spondylus has long drawn the attention of scholars interested in the past, including archaeologists such as Allison Paulsen (1974, The Thorny Oyster and the Voice of God: Spondylus and Strombus in Andean Prehistory, American Antiquity 39: 421-434) and Jorge Marcos (1977-1978, Cruising to Acapulco and Back with the Thorny Oyster Set: A Model for a Lineal Exchange System, Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 9: 99-132), art historians such as Judith Davidson (1981, El Spondylus en la cosmología Chimú, Revista del Museo Nacional 45: 75-87, ) and Joanne Pillsbury (1996, The Thorny Oyster and the Origins of Empire: Implications of Recently Uncovered Spondylus Imagery from Chan Chan, Peru, Latin American Antiquity 7: 313-340), and ethnohistorians such as Mara Rostworowski (1989, inter alia, Costa peruana prehispánica, Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos) and Anne Marie Hocquenghem (1993, inter alia, Rutas de entrada de mullu en el extremo norte del Perú, Bulletin de l'Institut ais d'études Andines 22: 701-719).

Spondylus first appears in Peruvian archaeological sites during the Late Preceramic Period (ca. 5000-3800 B.P.), but finds of this antiquity are few and small. By the Early Horizon (ca. 2500-2200 B.P.), it had supplanted the indigenous, cold-water mollusk Choromytilus chorus as the shell icon of the Peruvian elite, although Choromytilus continued to be offered by commoners throughout the prehistoric epochs. During the succeeding periods, the thorny oyster became increasingly common in burials and offerings, where its context indicates more and more clearly the importance of Spondylus in ancient Andean ritual life. It also appears in the iconography of diverse cultures, including north coast images of divers collecting Spondylus shells from the seafloor--presumably in Ecuador (e.g., A. Cordy-Collins, 1990, Fonga Sigde: Shell Purveyor to the Chimu Kings, pp. 393-417 in The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor, edited by M. E. Moseley and A. Cordy-Collins, Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks).

By late prehispanic times, the thorny oyster was distributed widely throughout the central Andes. Vast quantities of Spondylus shell have been found at sites on the north coast of Peru such as Chan Chan, capital of the Chimú empire, and it is present over a much wider region. Archaeologists have recovered figurines carved out of Spondylus from high-altitude Inka sites in southern Peru and Chile, identical to figurines found at central and north coast centers such as Túcume (T. Heyerdahl, D. H. Sandweiss, and A. Narváez, 1995, Pyramids of Túcume, Thames & Hudson, New York). Chaquira, small beads made of Spondylus shell and other materials, litter sites along the Peruvian coast.

During the final prehispanic periods, a wealth of ethnohistoric evidence adds to the archaeological data. In a series of books and articles (e.g., Costa . . .) based on a 1570s Spanish document, Rostworowski has linked the Chincha kingdom of southern Peru with the Spondylus trade from Ecuador before and during the Inka Empire. However, excavations in Chincha during the 1980s confirmed the results of Max Uhle's work in 1901: Spondylus is very rare in middens and burials, nor does it appear in local collections of ancient objects. Chincha was probably a latecomer to the shell trade, most likely receiving the Spondylus franchise from the Inka in exchange for peaceful submission to the empire (D. H. Sandweiss, 1992, The Archaeology of Chincha Fishermen: Specialization and Status in Inka Peru, Bulletin of Carnegie Museum 29). Prior to the Inka conquest of the Peruvian coast, trade with Ecuador seems to have been in the hands of the Chimú. This north coast empire was located much closer to Ecuador, and Chimú sites are full of Spondylus. It would have made little geopolitical sense for the Inka to leave the acquisition and distribution of such an important ritual offering in the hands of their major rivals, the Chimú. Chincha was closer to the highland Inka capital of Cuzco, at a good spot for shifting cargo from boats to porters for the trek inland, and it would have been much easier to control than the more distant and far more powerful Chimú empire.

Regardless of who controlled Spondylus trade during late prehispanic time, there is no question of the shell's importance. Many documentary sources link it with water rituals. In one Quechua myth recorded during the Catholic Church's campaign to extirpate idolatries in the early 17th century, Spondylus is offered to a powerful god, who eats the shells with gusto ("making them crunch with a Cap Cap sound") (F. Salomon and G. L. Urioste, translators, 1991, The Huarochiri Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion, p. 116. University of Texas Press, Austin). Even in the early Colonial Period, the thorny oyster retained its value for the native peoples; Rostworowski (Costa . . . , p. 224) notes that it was still highly valued in the 17th century, and that Spaniards as well as natives were involved in the Spondylus trade. In modern times, the ritual importance of the thorny oyster has been much diminished but not completely eradicated. However, Spondylus is now mined from prehispanic sites rather than traded from Ecuador. An archaeologist from Ayacucho in Peru's southern highlands told me 15 years ago that he had heard of caravans bringing Spondylus from south coast sites to Ayacucho, and the section of the Chiclayo market that sells paraphernalia for curers and sorcerers often displays thorny oysters looted from graves in the surrounding Lambayeque valley.

Now Spondylus is back, and precisely because of its prehispanic importance as an Ecuadorian item traded to and highly valued in Peru. On October 26, 1998, the presidents of Peru and Ecuador met in Brasilia to sign a peace agreement ending over 50 years of often-armed border dispute. Indeed, as recently as 1995, these Andean neighbors were fighting along their jungle frontier. As a result of this situation (fortunately resolved after several months), Jim Richardson (Carnegie Museum/University of Pittsburgh) and I almost had to cancel our summer field season based at the northern oil port of Talara, where Peru has its forward fighter base. Friends in town told us of nightly blackouts and constant alerts during the conflict--every time any military craft took off from Guayaquil, about a 10 minute flight away in southern Ecuador, the Peruvian squadrons had to scramble. Even the Panamerican highway was affected: near the Talara airfield, a long section had recently been widened, repaved, and painted with wide stripes as a secondary landing field for the fighters.

In his speech at Brasilia, Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad made the first public reference to Spondylus in the context of the new integration between his country and Peru. Addressing Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, he said "The history of our countries is much closer and tighter than the problems of the last decades: when the Lord of Sipán was found, he had among his ornaments gold, silver, and the Spondylus shell, which is only found . . . in Ecuador" (

In mid-December 1998, the head of PromPeru (a Peruvian government institution charged with promoting Peru to tourists and investors) took Mahuad's statement and other references to Spondylus one step further. At a conference on the new binational integration, PromPeru President Beatriz Boza gave a speech, "Spondylus: Symbol of Shared Illusions," in which she proposed that the Spondylus shell be the official icon of the emerging relationship between Peru and Ecuador ( The speech was reported in the Lima paper El Comercio on December 17, 1998, under the headline "Spondylus Will Be the Symbol of the Integration between Peru and Ecuador" ( Boza points briefly but accurately to a number of archaeological contexts in which Spondylus was an important element, and concludes by stating that "Spondylus reminds us of the constructive force of this millennary exchange, real and symbolic . . ." Most recently, PromPeru has established a Web site dedicated to the thorny oyster and its new symbolic intent ( [sic]).

In more than 20 years of research in Peru, I cannot recall a similar, government-sponsored use of precolumbian symbols to deliberately forge modern identity. Certainly, many archaeological sites and pieces of ancient art have been reproduced for their aesthetic context and their attraction for tourists. How often have we seen pictures of Machu Picchu, the Nazca lines, or a Moche face jar? The Peruvian national oil company PetroPeru, while it existed, used a generic Middle Sicán (Lambayeque valley) mask as its logo; however, at the time it was chosen, little was known archaeologically about these often-looted gold objects (thanks to Izumi Shimada and his colleagues, we now know more). Indeed, Peruvian friends have told me that in the years before Velasco's 1968 coup and his attempt to give equal place to Peru's native cultures, it was a serious insult to call someone "cara de huaco" (precolumbian pot-face). They also tell me that despite the economic and political failure of Velasco's government, he did set in motion a slow wave of change in the average Peruvian's attitude toward their ancestors and their ancestral culture. Maybe it is this same wave that has now washed ashore Spondylus in an innovative attempt to value the past while seeking to improve the future.

Daniel H. Sandweiss is assistant professor of anthropology and quaternary studies at the University of Maine-Orono. All photographs in this article were taken by Sandweiss.

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