SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 21, February 2017 - Page 84


February 2017 - Art & Culture


he many species of Spondylus vary considerably in appearance and range. They are grouped in the same

superfamily as the scallops. They cement themselves to rocks, rather than attach themselves by a byssus. Their key characteristic is that the two halves of their shells are joined with a ball-and-socket type of hinge rather than with a toothed hinge, as is more common in other bivalves

Spondylus, otherwise known as the "thorny oyster" is found in the warm waters of most of the world’s seas with the genus having about 76 species living worldwide. Spondylus shells appear in range of colors from white to orange, red and purple.

As of recently I began to explore working with the Spondylus found of the coasts of Ecuador and Peru.

Between the months of April and September, the flesh of Spondylus is toxic to humans, a seasonal toxicity recognized in most shell fish called PSP. It is caused by toxic algae or 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 Nino oscillations, themselves associated with catastrophic storms.

According to ancient Peruvians, a Quechua myth recorded in the 17th century refers to Spondylus as the "Food of the Gods.” Some debate exists among scholars as to whether this means that the gods consumed Spondylus shells, or the flesh of the animal. Glowacki (2005) makes an interesting argument that the effects of eating Spondylus shell meat out of season may have made them a part of religious ceremonies

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

In Peruvian culture, the shell played a large part as they were used as currency between South American civilizations. It was traded south of Peru for at least 3,000 years. Spondylus can be found mainly of the coast of Ecuador, but off the coast of Peru it appears when the water warms during the time of the El Niño current in December, right before the rainy season. For this reason, the indigenous people of Peru saw them as “bringing forth the rain.” In dry areas such as the Peruvian Coast, it is no wonder these “OMENS OF RAIN” were considered valuable. When there was drought, and no Spondylus around, it only seemed logical for ancient Peruvians to travel to the Gulf of Guayaquil in

order to find these shells which would help bring the rain.

Today, Spondylus is threatened by Ocean pollution, harsh fishing methods, and overexploitation for it fleshy inside, which is also considered a delicacy by locals. As far as consumption for jewelry, because it is difficult to carve its spiky surface, there are not man artists who work with Spondylus. For this reason, local artisans are not considered a threat for harvesting shells even though shells are much sought after by collectors. In the ancient cultures Spondylus shells have been traditionally used for jewelry but only worn by royals.

I have been working with Spondylus for only a few years- since my visit to Peru. I love the magnificent orange red and color but because it is quite hard and difficult to cut, so there are only few pieces in my collection. Generally I would mainly look for smaller size shells and create a composition with other shells like the Haliotis, as featured in this article, which first appeared in Elle Magazine in 2013.