You are on page 1of 18


Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 63, 2007

Copyright by The University of New Mexico
An Ethnographic Study of Spondylus Use in Coastal Ecuador
Daniel Eric Bauer
Department of Anthropology, Southern Illinois UniversityCarbondale,
Carbondale, IL 62901. Email:
KEY WORDS: Craft production; Culture change; Ecuador; History; Identity; Spondylus
Archaeologists have long noted the importance of Spondylus in the archaeological
record of Ecuador. However, no one has attempted to understand contemporary
Spondylus use and its relation to the precolumbian past. This research attempts to
understand contemporary Spondylus use in coastal Ecuador by focusing on issues
of craft production and identity formation. Using an approach that combines both
archaeological and ethnographic information, this paper attempts to understand
the role of Spondylus craft production in the formation of a localized identity.
for ceremonial and ritual purposes in precolumbian contexts (e.g., Blower 1995;
Currie 1995; Marcos 1986; Masucci 1995; Norton 1986; Paulsen 1974; Sandweiss
1999; Shimada 1999). The presence of worked Spondylus shell at archaeological
sites throughout coastal Ecuador has been of central importance to archaeologists
and ethnohistorians studying the complex history of trade networks that were
present in precolumbian times. In coastal Ecuador, archaeological investigations
into the precolumbian use of Spondylus indicate that worked Spondylus was
an important trade item for precolumbian populations (e.g., Harris et al. 2004;
Marcos 1986; Marcos and Norton 1981; Masucci 1995; Norton 1986). Research
conducted since the 1970s suggests that coastal sites throughout southern Manab
province contained workshops for the production of worked Spondylus (Harris et
al. 2004; Norton et al. 1983; Paulsen 1974).
Despite a dynamic focus on the archaeological signicance of Spondylus
use, there is a noticeable absence of ethnographic research pertaining to the
contemporary use of Spondylus in coastal Ecuador. Recent research into the
contemporary use of Spondylus by coastal Ecuadorian inhabitants provides
important insights into the relationship between the archaeological past and the
ethnographic present. Based on research conducted at the village of Salango in
Ecuadors south-central Manab province, this article examines the Spondylus
folk art industry in coastal Ecuador. By analyzing current processes of Spondylus
use and manufacture, I argue that the artistic production of Spondylus acts as
a mechanism for anchoring contemporary identities to the precolumbian past
despite signicant changes in modes of production.
This research illustrates the complexity of craft production in coastal Ecuador.
One of the unique features of artisanal Spondylus procurement and craft production
is that it has resulted in a cultural renewal for the artisans and divers of Salango.
These specialists have renewed a cultural tradition that was prevalent throughout
the prehistory of coastal Ecuador. In doing so, they have taken a recognizable
symbol of Ecuadors prehistoric past and made it an indelible symbol of coastal
Ecuadors cultural present.
The genus Spondylus is a warm-water mollusk that is a member of the family
Spondylidae. Members of the family exist in such diverse ocean waters as those
bordering Central and South America, Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii, and Japan,
as well as throughout the Mediterranean. Two species of Spondylus, S. princeps
and S. calcifer, have a combined natural range extending from the Pacic Coast
of southern California to southern Ecuador. The two species vary in form but
are found in similar habitats. They occur in areas with rocky outcrops, often in
conjunction with tropical reef settings exhibiting a large amount of biodiversity.
Spondylus can be found at depths of 6 to 60 m (Keen 1971; Norton 1986; Olsson
1961). However, along the Ecuadorian coast specimens occasionally occur in
waters as shallow as 4 m.
Spondylus princeps is characterized by a number of large, spine-like
protuberances on the outer shell. For this reason it also known locally by the
common Spanish name ostra espinosa (spiny oyster). Spondylus princeps varies
in size and can reach up to 130150 mm across (Keen 1971), although larger
specimens do occasionally appear. The outer shell varies from pink to red to
orange. The inside of the shell also contains a thin rim of coloration around the lip
(Figure 1).
Figure 1. Spondylus princeps
Spondylus calcifer can exceed 250 mm across (Keen 1971). It lacks the spiny
projections characteristic of S. princeps. Instead, S. calcifer tends to have a high,
crowned top valve that is relatively smooth. The outer shell is generally lacking
the distinct coloration associated with S. princeps. The inside of the shell contains
a thin rim of coloration around the lip. This rim is most commonly purple with an
occasional irregular distribution of orange (Figure 2).
This article is based on ethnographic research conducted in the village
of Salango (pop. 1,400). Salango is located in southernmost Manab province
(Figure 3). The village of Salango is especially well known within Ecuador for
its prehistory, as well as its contemporary tradition of producing skilled divers
who work the waters off the Pacic Coast. Spondylus procurement in Salango
dates back to the Valdivia phase (3500 BC) and is still an important economic and
cultural activity.
Initial eldwork for this project was conducted between June and August 2002.
My initial eldwork focused largely on documenting natural resource utilization
in the community of Salango. During this time, my research focused specically
on understanding the local shing and diving economy. The information gathered
at the time of initial eldwork provided a basis for the present study.
Fieldwork for this project was conducted from June through September 2005
and fron January through March 2006. Research was aimed at understanding the
contemporary use and cultural signicance of Spondylus. Using information from
my preliminary research, I developed a set of primary questions that I wanted to
Figure 2. Spondylus calcifer.
ask during informal, open-ended interviews with local divers and artisans. There
are currently approximately 40 divers within the community, most of whom
belong to the recently organized Organizacin de Busos en la Pesca Artesanal del
Puerto Salango. Some of the divers also double as Spondylus artisans. Extensive
interviews were conducted with the artisans and Spondylus divers of Salango.
Interviews with both divers and artisans focused on understanding processes
of Spondylus procurement and craft production. Questions pertaining to the
contemporary use of Spondylus by the inhabitants of southern Manab were aimed
at gaining insight into the perceived cultural value of Spondylus. Both divers and
artisans were asked to share their knowledge of the precolumbian past and their
understanding of the precolonial use of Spondylus.
Community and Identity
The roots of the village of Salango extend back approximately 5,000 years.
At the time of the Spanish arrival on the Ecuadorian coast in 1525, Francisco
Pizzaros pilot, Bartolomeo Ruiz, made contact with an indigenous vessel of balsa
Figure 3. Map of southwest Coastal Ecuador.
carrying trade goods of silver, gold, textiles, and seashells, including Spondylus
(Currie 1995). According to Pizzaros written account, the vessel and its crew
were from a place known as Calangane (Currie 1995), a region believed to have
included the towns of Calangome (also spelled Salangome), Tusco, Seracapez,
and Calango (alternate spellings: Zalango and Salango). Of the four communities
that were once part of the region of Calangane, Salango is the only community to
have retained its precontact name.
During the 1980s the village of Salango was the site of Ecuadors largest
archaeological investigation. The excavation, which took place at the southern
edge of the village, revealed important insights into the complex prehistory of
the region (Norton 1986; Norton et al. 1983). In 1987 the Museo Salango was
established. The museum currently houses the majority of the artifacts associated
with the rst excavations conducted in Salango, as well as artifacts recovered
from subsequent archaeological investigations undertaken throughout the
region. Museo Salango houses some of the earliest Spondylus artifacts from the
Ecuadorian coast and is an important center of investigations for both foreign and
national scholars. Spondylus is such an important symbol of the precolumbian
past of Salango that, for example, in the year 2000 the Ecuadorian government
issued a commemorative postage stamp containing the image of an S. princeps
shell accompanied by the words Salango Manab.
Despite the substantial evidence that indicates a continuous occupation of the
Salango region for more than 5,000 years, the contemporary population is largely
considered mestizo. The mestizo designation refers to mixed-blood individuals
of Spanish and indigenous descent (Whitten 2003). The people of Salango do
not speak an indigenous language, and they have lost most of their ties to the
indigenous past. For these reasons they are largely considered to be mestizo rather
than Indian. The dramatic changes that took place with the arrival of the Spaniards
and the subsequent formation of encomiendas and haciendas irrevocably altered
the population of coastal Ecuador. Although the population of Salango has only
recently gained formal recognition as an indigenous community, the precolumbian
past clearly impacts local understandings of community identity.
All denitions of identity, whether ethnic, community, or national, include
a reference to common culture as one of the fundamental characteristics of
collective identity (Bonl Batalla 1989). In most cases, a common history or
common cultural origin is also an important dening attribute of populations with
a collective identity. Throughout this paper, I refer frequently to the population of
Salango as having a unique community identity that is rooted in the history of the
community and its inhabitants. Within the context of this paper, community identity
refers to a collective understanding of the past and ones relationship to it.
My research indicates that local conceptions of community identity in
Salango are largely informed by knowledge of the indigenous past. One such
example of this is the celebration of the unique community identity of Salango
on the Da de la Raza (October 12: Figure 4). In Salango, the Da de la Raza
is celebrated by acknowledging the indigenous past and its relationship to the
ethnographic present through the construction of balsa rafts that replicate the raft
Bartolomeo Ruiz encountered off the Ecuadorian coast. The festival not only
signies the importance of the indigenous past to the contemporary population of
Salango, it also serves as a public expression of a unique community identity that
is categorically linked to the prehistory of Salango.
Archaeological investigations throughout coastal Ecuador indicate that Spondylus
was of signicant ritual and ceremonial importance to the precolumbian inhabitants
of the region (e.g., Blower 1995; Currie 1995; Harris et al. 2004; Marcos 1986;
Marcos and Norton 1981; Masucci 1995; Norton 1986; Paulsen 1974). In
this section I provide a brief discussion pertaining to the precolumbian use of
Spondylus in Ecuador. The goal is not to present an in-depth analysis but instead
to provide a basic foundation that can be used to understand the contemporary use
of Spondylus in south-central coastal Ecuador.
Archaeological evidence from coastal Ecuador indicates that worked
Spondylus was used continuously by the precolumbian inhabitants of the region
from the Valdivia phase of occupation (35001500 BC) until the Manteo phase
(AD 8001532) (see Marcos 1986; Marcos and Norton 1981; Norton 1986; Norton
et al. 1983). During the Valdivia phase, worked Spondylus primarily took the form
of beads and worked pendants (Figure 5).
Figure 4. Balsa raft constructed for Da de la Raza 2006 in Salango.
In succeeding cultural stages, the Guangala phase (100 BC AD 800) and
the later Manteo phase (AD 8001500), archaeological evidence points to an
increased complexity in the types of goods being manufactured using Spondylus
(Masucci 1995; Norton 1986; Norton et al. 1983). During the Engoroy and
Guangala phases and later, into the Manteo phase, gurines made of Spondylus
comprise an important component of archaeological collections (Figure 6).
The importance of Spondylus in precolumbian Ecuador extends beyond the
mere manufacture of Spondylus adornments. In concordance with Norton (1986)
and based on excavations conducted in the southern Manab village of Ro Chico,
Martnez maintains that the Spondylus fragments with color rims carved out and
the obsidian and chert akes suggest the possible use of a large trade and workshop
center connected to a coastal shell trade network (1997:45). Correspondingly,
numerous scholars (e.g., Blower 1995; Cordy-Collins 1990; Marcos 1986; Marcos
and Norton 1981; Masucci 1995; Norton 1986; Norton et al. 1983; Paulsen 1974;
Rieff Anawalt 1992; Rostworowski and Morris 1999; Sandweiss 1999; Shimada
1999; Villamarn and Villamarn 1999) point to long-distance trade as one of the
primary activities associated with precolumbian Spondylus production.
Figure 5. Valdivia pendant.
Figure 6. Late Engoroy gurine (photo courtesy Richard Lunniss).
The discovery of worked Spondylus outside of its natural range,
including coastal Peru and highland Ecuador, signies the existence of long-
distance trade networks. In fact, Paulsen argues that every one of the many
specimens of these shells discovered archaeologically in the Andean highlands
and the Peruvian coast must have been carried there from its original home in
coastal Ecuador (1974:597). Such long-distance trade indicates that economic
and ritual value was ascribed to Spondylus. Marcos (1977) suggests that the
value of Spondylus corresponds directly to its ritual use by precolumbian Andean
populations. Rostworowski and Morris (1999) argue that Spondylus or mullu, as it
is known in Quechua, was used in precolumbian Peru as an offering for the gods.
Correspondingly, Marcos (1977) suggests that the ritual use of Spondylus created
a demand and also increased its value. Apart from their role in ritual exchange,
Spondylus beads were also used as a form of currency throughout much of coastal
Ecuador. Red and white Spondylus beads that were produced along the coast
were traded to the highlands for copper and cotton (Blower 1995). To this end,
Spondylus was important both ritually and secularly.
Although there is no clear way of knowing the process by which Spondylus
was collected during the precolumbian period, archaeological evidence from
coastal Ecuador provides us with valuable insight. Research conducted by
Marcos and Norton (1981), as well as by Cordy-Collins (1990), and revisited by
Blower (1995), indicates that divers utilized worked stone anchors, weights, and
hammerstones in order to pry shells from the rocks below the surface of the ocean
(Figure 7). These same tools are commonly found by contemporary Spondylus
divers off the coast of southern Manab province.
Clearly, the extensive archaeological research conducted throughout the
southern Manab region provides us with substantial evidence attesting to the
Figure 7. Precolumbian stone weight with Spondylus shells.
importance of Spondylus to the precolumbian inhabitants of the region. We can
reasonably conclude that the village of Salango was one of the most important
centers of Spondylus procurement and craft production prior to Spanish contact
(see Currie 1995; Villamarn and Villamarn 1999). Although a great deal is known
or can reasonably be inferred about the precolumbian use of Spondylus, relatively
little is known about the contemporary use and cultural signicance of Spondylus
in southern Manab province.
Recent anthropological enquiries into craft production have focused heavily on
the relationship between craft production and identity. These discussions focus
not only on crafts as markers of ethnic identity (Carruthers 2001; Collorado-
Mansfeld 1999; Garca Canclini 1993), but also on the connection between craft
production and the state (Stephen 1991). Within this context, craft production
is often viewed as a material representation of cultural identity because what
is involved are objects, methods of production, and designs rooted in the
communitys history (Garca Canclini 1993:71). Anthropologists can examine
changes in cultural identity by analyzing inuences of external agents on craft
production (Garca Canclini 1993). These agents include craft brokers, museums,
popular media, and the state. In this section I examine the relationship between
artisanal craft production and community identity while analyzing the process of
identity formation through craft production.
At the beginning of the twenty-rst century, Spondylus procurement and
artisanal production remain important activities along the southern Manab coast.
The long history of Spondylus use by the earliest inhabitants of coastal Ecuador
has not gone unnoticed by contemporary inhabitants of the region. Today, more
than 5,000 years removed from the Valdivia culture that once inhabited the
region extending from Manab province south to Guayas province, Spondylus
procurement, craft production, and trade are still important to the divers and
artisans of the south-central Ecuadorian coast.
Contemporary Spondylus use in the context of southern Manab province
is centered on its procurement for artisan production and for consumption.
local harvest of Spondylus takes place throughout the year in the relatively warm
waters off the coast of southern Manab. A unique feature of the Manab coast is
that, unlike the coastal zones to the south, including Ecuadors Guayas province
and coastal Peru, the waters off coastal Manab are warm enough to support the
growth of Spondylus. The water temperature is due to the movement of the cold
Humbolt Current away from the coast and toward the west. Thus the waters off of
the southern Manab coast provide an ideal environment for Spondylus.
In Salango, the community most renowned for the harvest of Spondylus in
all of coastal Ecuador, the valuable bivalve is harvested via the long-standing
tradition of diving. Experienced family members, often fathers and uncles, train
divers in their early teens. Divers gain knowledge through experience, and most
become adept at their craft by the time they reach their late teens. Don Felix, a 57-
year-old retired diver, recounted his years as a diver and how he trained his sons
and nephews to become divers.
I have been a sherman and diver all of my life. I began diving when I was
10 years old. I wasnt trained . . . I just learned. This is the place to dive
. . . . Salango is known as the place where divers learn. When I started I just
jumped in the water and dove. Since then I have trained these guys when
they were thirteen or fourteen years old [pointing to one of his sons and two
of his nephews]. They are good divers . . . they learned from experience
. . . that is the only way to learn to be a good diver, you just have to get in
the water and dive.
Unlike commercial divers in the United States, the divers of Salango do not
use tanks of compressed oxygen. One method they use is free diving. Free diving
requires a diver to hold his breath for as long as two and a half minutes as he
dives to depths reaching 20 m. A second means of diving uses compressed
oxygen. A gasoline-powered air-compressor is kept on the deck of the boat, and
oxygen is passed from the compressor through a half-inch-diameter hose that
is attached to a regulator. Both types of diving are extremely dangerous and
physically demanding.
Spondylus is usually collected within a few miles of the coast of southern
Manab. It can generally be found along reefs and rocky outcrops where depths
range from 4 m to 20 m. The majority of the Spondylus harvested in the southern
Manab region is collected in the waters around the numerous small islands and
islets that dot the landscape of the coast. Isla Salango, located approximately 2 km
offshore from the village of Salango, is one such island. For centuries divers have
worked the waters surrounding the island in search of Spondylus. Large numbers
of stone artifacts found in contemporary Spondylus beds attest to the long history
of Spondylus extraction from the waters surrounding the island (Figure 7).
Marcos Ayola is one of approximately 40 divers who dive commercially for
Spondylus. In his home he proudly displays a large collection of Spondylus shells,
as well as numerous stone artifacts that he has collected while diving. The artifacts
collected by Marcos and other local divers include stone net weights, anchors, and
hammerstones similar to those recovered during archaeological investigations in
and around the village of Salango. During an interview with Marcos in his home in
the summer of 2005, he discussed the artifacts and their signicance. He pointed
to the artifacts as a symbol of the continuity between the past and the present.
We do what our ancestors did. . . . Diving is something that was done in
the past, and we continue that tradition in the present. . . . When I dive,
I am able to see what my ancestors saw. We dive in the same locations as
our ancestors.
In understanding identity with relation to Spondylus use and history, it is
important to note that the growth of artisanal craft production occurred after the
archaeological history of the region was formally revealed through extensive
excavations and the opening of Museo Salango. The archaeological investigations
that took place in the village of Salango during the 1980s have undoubtedly
contributed to the present practices of Spondylus procurement and artisanal
production. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that the archaeologists are in large
part responsible for the contemporary cultural value of Spondylus. When referring
to cultural value, I am speaking specically here of the importance of Spondylus
as a tangible connection to the past. In the village of Salango, the past is known
and understood primarily as a consequence of the archaeological investigations
conducted in the region and the presence of the archaeological museum.
Many of Salangos divers and artisans have family members who worked
with archaeologist Pressley Norton during the excavations at Salango. Although
Spondylus was utilized prior to the excavations at Salango, its use and value have
changed as a result of the archaeological excavations.
Before the excavations at the factory site, we had a different name for
Spondylus. We called it Catarro. We used to eat Spondylus, like we do
today, but we didnt understand the signicance of it. Everyone knew what
Catarro was, and then the archaeologist Pressley Norton came and told
people that it was Spondylus. Now everyone uses the scientic name. My
grandfather used to dive for Catarro. . . . It was much more common back
then. Spondylus was always valuable. . . . We have always used Spondylus,
but now it is well known (Carlos Mendez, diver and artisan).
The signicance of the ways in which the past and present are linked by
Spondylus diving should not be overlooked. In many ways, the physical activity
of Spondylus diving allows divers to reconnect with the past and better understand
their relationship to the early indigenous populations of the region. When asked
about this relationship, most divers presented me with a similar response to that
given by Marcos. This region is known for its ancient cultures. Our ancestors
were Spondylus divers and traders. We continue that tradition (Alfredo Macas,
diver). For many of my informants, the practice of diving for Spondylus is more
than a mere economic activity; it is a way to literally come face-to-face with the
past in a unique environment that is only accessible to a select few individuals.
As suggested by local divers, Spondylus diving and the prehistory of
Spondylus diving provide a means of understanding their identity. For the people
of Salango, Spondylus diving and craft production serve to reenforce notions of
cultural identity. As one diver stated, We are not indigenous, but our ancestors
were indigenous. . . . We do not speak an indigenous language, but we live the same
way that our ancestors lived. We make our living from the ocean. We have done
this for thousands of years. We still dive for Spondylus like our ancestors. The
statement speaks to the discontinuity as well as the continuity that exists between
the contemporary population of Salango and their precolumbian ancestors. What
is perhaps most important is the recognition that the contemporary population is
related to the precolumbian population of the region.
Where the past and present are disjointed through processes of assimilation,
as is the case in coastal Ecuador, and indeed all of Latin America, modern artisanal
practices not only represent a vestige of the past but also function to link the past
to the present. Arts and crafts . . . endure and grow because they fulll certain
functions within social reproduction (Garca Canclini 1993:37). In the case of
southern Manab province, the artisanal practices of Spondylus procurement and
craft production function not only economically, but also culturally. The above-
mentioned practices reenforce notions of indigenous ancestry in a community
that is largely regarded as mestizo or montuvio. Ultimately, the economic history
of Spondylus use in coastal Ecuador and the contemporary practices associated
with Spondylus use create a distinctive sense of community identity. The identity
embodied at a general level by the people of Salango, and specically by the
divers and artisans of Salango, is partially linked to the practices of Spondylus
procurement and artistic production. Ethnographic data support the contention
that Spondylus diving is not solely an economic practice. Spondylus diving is as
much symbolic as it is economic. For the divers and artisans of Salango, Spondylus
represents one of the few tangible connections to the past.
Despite the archaeological evidence of the precolumbian use of Spondylus,
and its use by contemporary divers and artisans, there is little evidence to support
the contention that Spondylus diving has occurred continuously since rst contact
in 1525. Interviews conducted with contemporary as well as retired divers
indicate that Spondylus diving has occurred continuously since the middle part of
the twentieth century, with demonstrable growth in artisanal diving occurring in
the past 20 years. This growth is due in part to the utilization of compressed air
(as opposed to free-diving) and the associated ease of diving owing to improved
technology. Moreover, the growth of artisanal diving can be attributed in part
to the artisanal production of Spondylus jewelry and the associated demand for
Spondylus shells.
Artisan production of Spondylus in southern Manab is limited to a handful
of individuals in and around the community of Salango. The majority of the
Spondylus artisans in the southern Manab region are young men, most of whom
also work in the local diving industry. There are only four Spondylus artisans in the
village of Salango, three of whom are divers as well as artisans. These individuals
hold a unique knowledge of craft production that links them as individuals, and
the community as a whole, to the precolumbian past.
During an interview held in his workshop, Luis, one of the contemporary
artisans, recounted the work of his late maternal grandfather. According to Luis,
his grandfather worked primarily with mother-of-pearl, which is also found
throughout coastal Ecuadorian waters but has a thinner shell than Spondylus,
making it easier to work. Luis maintained that his grandfather rarely worked
with Spondylus because of the difculty in cutting and shaping it with hand tools.
However, Luis attributed his own desire to work with Spondylus as the result of
hours spent watching his grandfather work. He was a very creative man. . . . He
used to make all sorts of things out of mother-of-pearl. I remember that he once
made a belt-buckle out of mother-of-pearl. Although no formal training occurred,
Luis maintains that the creativity needed to work with Spondylus is the same as that
needed to work with mother-of-pearl and that creativity is in the blood.
Luiss workshop is a small cluttered area located in the back of his parents
home. A rusted panel of corrugated aluminum covers a small wooden table littered
with fragments of shell. His tools are limited. Luis relies primarily on a grinding
wheel for cutting and polishing the shells. The outside of the Spondylus shell
is rst ground down to remove the thick outer layer, exposing the fully colored
shell. Once the shell is cleaned and polished, it is carefully marked using a paper
pattern. The shell is then painstakingly cut to match the pattern. After the pattern
is cut, a bufng wheel is placed on the grinder and rubbed with resin in order to
polish the shell.
The artisanal production of Spondylus jewelry is highly dependent on the
burgeoning tourist market. Supporting Garca Canclinis contention that declining
artisanal production is revived thanks to a growing demand for exotic objects
(1993:41), the growth of Spondylus craft production in southern Manab province
corresponds directly to the recent growth in tourism throughout the region. As
such, Spondylus craft production straddles the line between the traditional and the
modern. As I have suggested, Spondylus craft production is inherently linked to the
precolumbian past of southern Manab while also being an important commodity
for contemporary artisans.
The form of the nished product depends on multiple factors. Since Spondylus
jewelry is primarily marketed to tourists, artisans produce a variety of products
varying in price from U.S. $5 to more than $60. Shells are fabricated into beads and
pendants of various sizes for use in necklaces, bracelets, and earrings (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Spondylus necklace.
Surprisingly, most of the items crafted by artisans do not attempt to replicate
precolumbian designs. Instead, artisans create designs with which the casual
tourist can readily identify. Most tourists who visit southern Manab province
do so during the months of June through August. The greatest tourist attraction
during this time is the migration of the Pacic humpback whale and the associated
whale-watching tours. In recognition of this, Spondylus shell pendants in the form
of whale tails are some of the most common products produced by the artisans
of Salango. Although they are some of the least expensive items sold by local
artisans, the design as well as the price is attractive to tourists, and they are some
of the easiest items to fabricate. Skilled artisans can produce a whale tail pendant
in less than 30 minutes.
While the majority of the jewelry produced by local artisans is sold to tourists
who visit the coast, some artisans have made connections that enable them to ship
their goods abroad. Luiss cousin Rolando was the rst to start selling his crafts
outside the Salango region. For the past ve years he has supplemented his income
by shipping whale tail pendants and other contemporary designs to the United
States. While he has been able to get higher prices for his goods by selling them in
the United States, he is selling to customers that have little or no understanding of
the history of Spondylus. Also, unlike tourists who buy Spondylus jewelry while
vacationing along the Ecuadorian coast, buyers in the U.S. do not necessarily
equate the purchased jewelry with a particular experience or place. Ultimately,
the jewelry sold abroad is purchased for different reasons than the jewelry that is
purchased by tourists visiting coastal Ecuador.
The change in meaning that takes place from artisanal good to tourist
commodity speaks to the hybrid (Chibnik 2003; Garca Canclini 1995) nature
of Spondylus and the corresponding shift from traditional to modern. As is the
case with worked Spondylus, a dramatic shift in meaning and value takes place
as a result of commodication. Whereas Spondylus represents a connection to the
past for the divers and artisans of Salango, it takes on a very different meaning
for tourists. For tourists, the history of Spondylus use in coastal Ecuador is often
of far less importance than the aesthetic of contemporary Spondylus jewelry. For
this reason, artisans rarely replicate precolumbian designs, but instead create
jewelry with modern designs, which are often symbolically attached to tourists
experiences in the region.
Artisanal craft production straddles the ancient commodity economy and the
postmodern capitalist economy (Carruthers 2001; Garca Canclini 1993). Perhaps
no other artisanal practice illustrates this more than artisanal Spondylus use in
Salango. Garca Canclini (1995) examines hybrid cultures and the blurred
lines that exist between traditional and modern. Contemporary Spondylus use
in coastal Ecuador represents the cultural hybridity (Garca Canclini 1995)
that is prevalent throughout much of Latin America, in that the crafts serve an
economic function while strengthening local cultural institutions (Stephen 1991).
Contemporary Spondylus use represents a clear connection to the past while the
economic strategies used to market Spondylus are clearly linked to the present.
In order to understand the contemporary cultural signicance of Spondylus it
is important to ask why the present inhabitants of southern Manab province use
this relatively obscure shell. I suggest that we can gain insight into the present
cultural value of Spondylus by examining its use from a functional perspective.
Here I draw heavily on the work of Garca Canclini (1993) and his discussion
of craft value. Garca Canclini (1993) argues that the transition of crafts from
artisanal good to capitalist commodity consists of changes in the types of value
attributed to the craft. First, crafts have a value within the community. In the
transition from traditional craft to capitalist commodity, crafts become imbued
with a commercial exchange value. In the third stage, there is a prevalence of the
cultural (aesthetic) value of tourists, who inscribe it within their own symbolic
system, which is different fromand at times opposed tothe Indian system
(Garca Canclini 1993:6162).
Among the divers and artisans of southern Manab, Spondylus is a commodity.
However, although Spondylus jewelry is now primarily manufactured for, and
marketed to, tourists, Spondylus retains an important cultural value. As I have
illustrated, Spondylus diving and craft production reenforce inhabitants connection
to the past. Despite the fact that Spondylus has become highly commercialized
through the sale of shells and jewelry, it remains one of the few tangible connections
to the precolumbian past for the divers and artisans of Salango. Roberto Ascencio,
a 25-year-old diver, spoke of the symbolism of Spondylus in the following way.
Spondylus is a symbol of this place. . . . it represents something that is more than
important for the people who live here in Salango. It represents our ancestors, our
past, the history of this community.
Spondylus has remained an indelible symbol of Ecuadors past and present.
My research suggests that despite the dramatic changes that have occurred
throughout coastal Ecuador over the past 5,000 years, Spondylus retains important
symbolic and economic functions. Spondylus is an important symbol of Salangos
precolumbian past and ethnographic present.
Spondylus is a symbol, a symbol of our community. Salango is full of culture.
The people who lived here thousands of years ago lived for Spondylus. It
was very important. It was a symbol of the Inca Empire during that time
and it is still an important symbol for the people of Salango. In actuality,
Salango is one of the best known places for Spondylus in all of Ecuador if
not all of the world (Mario Valdez, diver).
My interviews with the divers and artisans of Salango illustrate the relevance
of the past in the present. As I have illustrated throughout this paper, Spondylus
was not only important for the precolumbian inhabitants of Salango, it is also
important for the contemporary inhabitants. Just as Spondylus served signicant
economic and symbolic functions for the precolumbian inhabitants of coastal
Ecuador, it continues to be a prominent symbol of the region and its people.
The use of Spondylus by the precolumbian inhabitants of coastal Ecuador has
been thoroughly documented by archaeologists working throughout the region
since the 1970s. However, ethnographic data pertaining to the contemporary use
of Spondylus in coastal Ecuador is severely limited. My research in the coastal
Ecuadorian community of Salango suggests that research into Spondylus should
not be relegated to the examination of archaeological collections. Although
far removed from its earliest uses by the precolumbian populations of coastal
Ecuador, Spondylus retains a vital position within the current cultural landscape of
coastal Ecuador. Corresponding to its precolumbian function in coastal Ecuador,
Spondylus is economically important to the contemporary population of Salango.
More signicantly, Spondylus is an essential symbol of community identity. As a
material object Spondylus is one of the few tangible connections between coastal
Ecuadors precolumbian past and its ethnographic present.
In Ecuador, as in most Latin American countries, identity is highly contested.
While questions pertaining to contemporary identities are generally the domain
of cultural anthropologists, archaeologists have a great deal of evidence to add
to this discussion. In many cases, the work of archaeologists does more than
illuminate questions about the past. In the case study presented in this paper,
archaeologists have done much to provide the contemporary population of
Salango with a means of understanding their own identity. While the focus of this
article is not the inuence of archaeologists in the construction of contemporary
identities, it is important to note the way in which the archaeological record is
used by the contemporary population of Salango to ground their cultural self-
identity. As Smith (1991) suggests, contemporary identities that may appear to be
newly formed cannot be separated from preexisting or rediscovered elements.
In coastal Ecuador, the reinvention of tradition has helped to form a basis for
grounding local identity in the past.
Future research into the construction of localized identities should consider
the relationships among history, economic practice, and identity. Whereas
archaeology and ethnography are all too often viewed as separate elds of enquiry,
this article illustrates the potential for ethnographers to use archaeological data in
order to answer questions about the present.
1. All interviews were conducted in Spanish. All translations are my own. This revised
version benetted from the comments of three anonymous JAR reviewers. I would like to
thank Dr. Michael Harris, Dr. Patrick Gay, Dr. Richard Lunniss, and Valentina Martnez for
their ongoing assistance in the eld.
2. In 2004 the comuna of Salango gained ofcial status as an indigenous community.
Salango joined more than 300 other communities in Manab and Guayas provinces as
Un Pueblo Manta-Huancavilca. In July 2006, the comunas of Salango, Agua Blanca,
Las Tunas, and Ayampe separated from the Manta-Huancavilca and formed their own
indigenous organization, known as the Pueblo Manta.
3. Spondylus meat is a highly valued local delicacy that is served at regional restaurants.
It is marketed to clients as the food of the gods because of its precolumbian ceremonial
4. In total, Don Felix has trained both of his sons and ve of his nephews. Don Felixs
sons and nephews are well-respected divers who have worked as professional divers in
Salango as well the Galapagos.
Blower, David. 1995. The quest for mullu: Concepts, trade, and the archaeological
distribution of Spondylus in the Andes. M.A. Thesis. Peterborough, Ontario: Trent
Bonl Batalla, Guillermo. 1989. Identidad nacional y patrimonio cultural: los conictos
ocultos y las convergencias posibles, in Antropologia y politicas culturales:
Patrimonio e identidad. Rita Ceballos, ed. Pp. 4352. Buenos Aires.
Carruthers, David. 2001. The politics and ecology of indigenous folk art in Mexico. Human
Organization 60:35666.
Chibnik, Michael. 2003. Crafting tradition: The making and marketing of Oaxacan wood
carvings. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Colloredo-Mansfeld, Rudi. 1999. The native leisure class: Consumption and cultural
activity in the Andes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cordy-Collins, Alana. 1990. Fonga Sigde, shell purveyor to the Chimu kings, in The
northern dynasties: Kingship and statecraft in Chimor. Michael E. Moseley and
Alana Cordy-Collins, eds. Pp. 393417. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research
Library and Collection.
Currie, Elizabeth J. 1995. Archaeology, ethnohistory, and exchange along the coast of
Ecuador. Antiquity 69:51126.
Garca Canclini, Nestor. 1993. Transforming modernity: Popular culture in Mexico. Austin:
University of Texas Press.
. 1995. Hybrid cultures: Strategies for entering and leaving modernity. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Harris, Michael, Valentina L. Martinez, Wm. Jerald Kennedy, Charles Roberts, and James
Gammack-Clark. 2004. The complex interplay of culture and nature in coastal south-
central Ecuador. Expedition 46:3843.
Keen, A. M. 1971. Seashells of tropical west America: Marine mollusks from Baja
California to Peru. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Marcos, Jorge. 1977. Cruising to Acapulco and back with the thorny oyster set: A model for
a lineal exchange system. Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 9:99132.
. 1986. Breve prehistoria del Ecuador, in Arqueologa de la costa Ecuatoriana:
nuevos enfoques. Edited by Jorge Marcos, pp. 2550. Quito: Corporacin Editora
Marcos, Jorge, and Pressley Norton. 1981. Interpretacin sobre la arqueologa de la Isla
de Plata. Miscelnea Antropolgica Ecuatoriana. 1:13654. Quito: Boletn de los
Museos del Banco Central del Ecuador.
Martnez, Valentina L. 1997. Excavacines en el sitio arquelgico Ro Chico Provincia
sur de Manab. Escuela de Campo de Arqueolgica. Unpublished report. Guayaquil:
Escuela Superior Politcnica del Litoral.
Masucci, Maria A. 1995. Marine shell bead production and the role of domestic craft
activities in the economy of the Guangala phase, southwest Ecuador. Latin American
Antiquity 6:7084.
Norton, Pressley. 1986. El Seoro de Salangone y la liga de mercaderes: el cartel
Spondylus-Balsa. Miscelnea Antropolgica Ecuatoriana 6:13144.
Norton, Pressley, Richard Lunniss, and Nigel Nailing. 1983. Excavaciones en Salango,
Provincia de Manab, Ecuador. Miscelnea Antropolgica Ecuatoriana 3(3):972.
Olsson, Axel A. 1961. Mollusks of the tropical Eastern Pacic, particularly from the
southern half of the Panamic-Pacic faunal province (Panama to Peru). Ithaca:
Paleontological Research Institution.
Paulsen, Allison C. 1974. The thorny oyster and the voice of God: Spondylus and Strombus
in Andean Prehistory. American Antiquity 39:597607.
Rieff Anawalt, Patricia. 1992. Ancient cultural contacts between Ecuador, West Mexico, and
the American Southwest: Clothing similarities. Latin American Antiquity 3:11429.
Rostworowski, Mara, and Craig Morris. 1999. The fourfold domain: Inka power and its
social foundations, in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas,
Vol. III: South America, Part 1. Frank Salomon and Stuart B. Schwartz, eds. Pp. 769
863. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sandweiss, Daniel H. 1999. The return of the native symbol: Peru picks Spondylus to
represent new integration with Ecuador. Society for American Archaeology Bulletin
Shimada, Izumi. 1999. Evolution of Andean diversity: Regional formations (500 B.C.E.
C.E. 600), in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol.
III: South America, Part 1. Frank Salomon and Stuart B. Schwartz, eds. Pp. 350517.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Anthony D. 1991. The nation: Invented, imagined, reconstructed? Millennium
Stephen, Lynn. 1991. Culture as a resource: Four cases of self-managed indigenous craft
production in Latin America. Economic Development and Culture Change 40:10130.
Villamarn, Juan, and Judith Villamarn. 1999. Chiefdoms: The prevalence and persistence
of seoros naturals, 1400 to European conquest, in The Cambridge History of the
Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol. III: South America, Part 1. Frank Salomon and
Stuart B. Schwartz, eds. Pp. 577667. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whitten, Norman E., Jr. 2003. Symbolic inversion, the typology of El Mestizaje, and the
spaces of Las Razas in Ecuador. Journal of Latin American Anthropology 8:5285.