Gulf of California

Seashells and the Seri
by -- March 24th, 2012

As we walked down the beach in Old Kino Bay I became enamored by the diversity of seashells scattered across the beach.  Later on that evening I found myself wondering if seashells were not only ecologically significant to the area but socially significant to local cultures.  So in preparation for our visit to the Seri village, a local indigenous community, I decided to do research on the traditional usage of seashells within their culture and here are the interesting tidbits of knowledge I unearthed…

Tools, Utensils, and Containers

  • Larger clams (e.g. Laevicardium elatum), serve as all-purpose bowls, dippers for food, and to dig in the dirt.  Medium-sized clams, such as the surf clam (Mactra dolabriformis) or a small giant egg cockle shell (Laevicardium elatum), are used as spoons.
  • The thick shell of the Gulf cockle (Trachycardium panamense) is used to scrape out the pulp of the barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) to collect emergency liquid and make barrel cactus containers.
  • A large clamshell filled with water may be used as a mirror when placed in the shade.

Good Luck Caches

  • Clamshells (e.g. Chione) are stuck into columnar cacti, tree trunks (e.g. ironwood-Olneya), and rock crevices as good luck offerings and caches.  A prayer is often repeated when this practice is performed, as luck is sought from the spirit of the cardoncactus.  This custom is practiced so that the cactus spirit influences other people to give the supplicant material gifts.  The clams usually remain in the cactus for a number of years, possibly even decades.

    Shell Middens are where the Seri get together to clean and prep mollusks for consumption. The above picture is a shell midden containing operculums from mollusks; we came across this site while on a hike in Punta Cirios, Sonora.

Crafts

  • Large clams (e.g. Laevicardium elatum) serve as containers for pigments and paints.
  • The surf clam is called haxöl icáai by the Seri: Haxöl referring to littleneck clam and icáai means ‘to-make-with’ referring to a woman making pottery.  So as indicated in its name this shell is used to scrape the damp clay of an unfinished pottery vessel.
  • Olivella and other seashells are used to make necklaces and other personal ornaments.  At low tide small groups of women and children comb exposed tide flats for live Olivella and other mollusks, picking the shells out of the wet sand or mud at the end of the mollusks’ small, raised trails.  Other shells are collected from beach drift, such as the jingle shell (Anomia adamas) and coffee bean cowrie (Trivia solandri).  The mollusks are then carried back to camp in buckets, cans, or improvised pockets in the women’s skirts.  The shells used for necklaces are often juvenile Olivella dama and Olivella steveni.   Sometimes natural, brownish shells are used to make necklaces but more commonly they are bleached white before stringing by roasting them in hot sand.   The women make the necklaces for their own use, as gifts to other women, and to sell.

Games

  • Tower shells (Turritella gonostoma), are used in a game in which the shell is flipped into the open end of a piece of reedgrass.

 

Reference: Felger, Richard Stephen and Mary Beck Moser (1985). People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians. The University of Arizona Press: Tucson, Arizona.

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