Spondylus, Strombus, and Conus:
Offerings to the Andean Gods

National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History,
* Peru, Lima, September 2002

Manuel Gorriti Manchego:
E-mail: Gorritimanuel21@hotmail.com 
Victor Falcon Huayta:


Este artículo también esta disponible en español (spanish). Sin embargo, la página suplementaria aún no esta traducida. Nuestras disculpas por la lentitud en poner esta traducción en línea y gracias por su paciencia. (17 de setiembre de 2002).



The use of the sea-like sources of resources for subsistence have been considered by the Andean people of South American from times immemorial. Inside specialized literature, the study of the different remains that show the use and exploitation of the resources of the sea is denominated as “marine subsistence”. This way, these items understood as both vertebrates and spineless remains such as:  marine mammals, fish, birds, crustacean, algae, and of course, molluscs. These resources continue to be exploded actively at the present time, maintaining industries and communities of traditional fishing (in ports denominated caletas) all along of Peruvian coast. 

However, some species of marine molluscs were appreciated, not only for their meat, but also for their size and their attractive forms and colors. These shells served as a basic matter to make personal decorations and artifacts for rites.  

In Andean area of Peru, approximately 4,500 years ago there emerged the first big temples that were organized to agricultural societies that counted among their main products; the potato  (Solanum tuberosum), corn (Zea mays), yucca (Manihot esculenta), cotton (Gossypium barbadense), among others. Also, the temples produced the first artistic images that expressed their beliefs, captured in fabrics, gourds, figulinas of mud, objects worked in bone or lithic engravings. All this happened before the appearance of the pottery for what the archaeologists denominate to this period Late Preceramic or Archaic.  In this context, the first indications of the presence of the Spondylus princeps are detected, one of the big molluscs of the Andean ritual that lives in warm waters of the Ecuadorian coast toward the north, arriving until the Gulf of California. 

At the moment two species are food: Spondylus princeps and Spondylus calcifer and they are distributed in the whole tropical sea of the Pacific, that is to say from Punta Mal Pelo at Tumbes (Mogollón 1999) until the Gulf of California. They are of free life, with occasional fixation of mall area in its shell to the rocks or dead shells. In the area of California the plungers report it to depths of 25 until the 90 m., with few specimens at 15 m.. 10,000 individual colonies or more was viewed on sandy surfaces to 43 m depths. The fact that these big populations are detected can be due to that the fact that fishermen don't reach these depths (batimetría) in their search for the food (Skoglund Carol and David K. Mulliner 1996: 96).


The Ecosystem of the Coast: 

The coast of Peru is conformed by the Peruvian Province and the Panamian Province which are according to the marine currents that bath their coast: the Peruvian Current (Humboldt) and the Ecuadorian Tropical Current respectively. Due to it, the marine fauna varies sensibly in each one of the regions of molluscs. The oceanographic factors that impact in to the differentiation of the species of molluscs that are located in the adjacent marine coast they are: 

  • The marine current
  • The temperature average
  • The oxygenation level and salinity of the waters
  • The characteristics of the biotopo (niche or inhabit) where the species reside
  • The surf and the topography of the next marine bottom to the coast. 

The Current Tropical Ecuadorian of warm waters reaches temperatures that fluctuate approximately between 24 and 29 °C. The waters of the Peruvian Current (Humboltd) fluctuate between 14 and 18 °C. There are four types of beaches: swamp (“manglar”), sandy, sandy / stony and stony. The molluscs can live in the areas of fluctuation of the tides, reef of the waves or in the marine funds (infralitoral).

Figure 1:.
Swamp ecosystem in Port Pizarro, Tumbes-Perú. 


Ornamental and Ritual Molluscs:

In the Central Andean archaeological sites (Perú), there is a group of molluscs documented in context of no-subsistence that attracted the attention of pre-Columbian societies from the beginnings of the civilization in America for their singularity, rarity and beauty. In chronological order of appearance these they are: 

The last two species are clearly identified here for the first time in Peru’s archaeology. They have their habitat in the Panamanian Province, and for this reason they arrived in the Peruvian Andes from the coasts of Ecuador (Although the species Malea ringens, Strombus peruvianus, Conus fergusoni, Pleuroploca princeps and Fusinus panamensis are distributed throughoput the tropical sea of the Peruvian north). They became indispensable in religious and funeral rituals, and they constituted ornamental elements, distinction and prestige between shamanes and warriors, reinforcing the symbolic power of these members of the social elite. Between these big tropical molluscs, the Spondylus princeps played a main role, being very considered and an object of intense traffic until Inca times (Rostworowski 1977; 1999).   




The use of the shells of tropical molluscs for the first residents of the region of the Ecuador (North’s Andes) goes back to Las Vegas culture, 10,000 - 6,600 B.P. The contexts and species that appears are: 

a) Funeral: Anadara tuberculosa, Tagelus sp., Mytilus, Natica sp., Melongena

b) Ceremonials: Murex, Melongena

c) As material to manufacture:

  • Trumpets “pututos”: Melongena
  • Possible torteros or “piruros” (spindles): Pinctada mazatlanica
  • Plates and tablespoons: Malea ringens, Lyropecten sp.
  • Devices possibly used to dig: Melongena patula
  • Containers of substances: Malea ringens.
  • Ornaments.

(Stothert 1990).  

Figure 2:
Pinctada mazatlanica

Later, the ritual use of the big molluscs Spondylus princeps, Strombus peruvianus and Strombus galeatus related to the water’s cult in this region and are located in the remains of the Valdivia culture toward the 3,200 B.C. (Marcos 1995:99; Marcos 2002). Marcos thinks that several natural factors created this relationship between the Spondylus and the rain. They are: 

a) The recurrent rains and droughts of the coastal climate that existed among the ports of Manta (Manabí) and the Gulf of Guayaquil (Guayas). 

b) The fluctuations of the currents of the warm waters that offered good conditions for the proliferation of Spondylus in the infralitoral zone and the presence of rains with vegetal growth in this area. 

c) ** The El Niño phenomenon (ENSO, El Niño Southern Oscillation) that takes warm waters to the south of Tumbes and Piura (Peru) in coasts where it never rain and are always arid. 

(Marcos 2002:15, 16) 


The Presence in the Central Andean: 

The early presence of the Spondylus princeps in the Central Andean, like traffic testimony at long distance, has been reported for monumental sites of the Late Preceramic Period or Archaic in Peru like: 

  • Paloma, located at 8 Km. at the north of the gulch of Chilca, 65 Km. from the south of  Lima city. It was established or occupied between 4,000 and 2,800 B.C. (Quilter 1989:6). Association of Spondylus  is uncertain (Ibid.: 29).  

  • Caral, located in Supe valley, 182 Km. at the north of Lima city. It was occupied between 2,627 and 2,020 Cal B.C. (Shady et al. 2001: 725). It was a bead tubular of Spondylus in constructive
    filler (Shady 2000: 60; Gorriti 2000:14, 18).   

  • La Galgada, located in the Tablachaca river, county of Pallasca (Ancash department, nor-central mountain of Peru). Occupied among 3,000 B.C.
    up to 1,500 B.C. The Spondylus can be dated in 1,610 ± 700 Cal B.C. (Grieder et al. 1988: 93, 94, 69). 

  • Los Gavilanes, to 2 Km. to the north of the Huarmey valley, nor-central coast of the Peru. Busy among approximately 3,200 and 1,600 B.C. (Bonavía 1982:277). The Spondylus was located in the phase 2 of Los Gavilanes  2,780 years B.C. (Ibid. :276). 

  • The Aspero, at 1 Km. at the south of  Supe’s Port, in the same valley.
    With radiocarbon dates that go back to 2,930 B.C. in “Huaca of the Sacrifices” and 3,702 B.C. in “Huaca of the Idols” (Feldman 1980: 246).
    A fragment of thorn of Spondylus was located in a sector at 100 m. at
    the north of “Huaca of the Idols” (Ibid. :157). 

  • Kotosh, at 5 Km. at the west of Huánuco city, central highlands of Peru. The reference of the presence of Spondylus in this place is pointed out by Marcos (1995: 116; 2002:23). We have not been able to locate it. On the other hand, Burger (1992) neither mentions it in his revision of the Late Precerámico period and their relationship with the Chavín phenomenon. 

From the examination of the objects, contexts and dates we can say that the presence of the Spondylus princeps in sites of the Central Andes can be averaged in 2,500 B.C. We mean, approximately 700 years after of Valdivia culture in the Ecuadorian region.

On the other hand, in this first stage it is generally founded in contexts of fillers in some big ceremonial centers, like small worked objects (earring or circular bead that were been used to manufacture necklaces, also called “chaquiras”) in tiny quantities.

This is important, because it points out that the Spondylus was inserted in this Andean region when several monumental traditions of religious architecture were developed and began influencing each other (Burger 1993). The Spondylus intervened as a secondary element in rites of constructions and used as distinction ornaments and prestige items by a small elite, but it didn't arrive to be represented in images corresponding to remains of this period. Neither is it documented of the specímens presence or whole valves, which indicates that the objects that arrived to this part of the Andes were probably already worked before they came.

This situation stays until the appearance of the pottery in the region (2,000-1,800 B.C.). As example we have the circular, cubic and lengthened beads of Spondylus that appeared during the works in “U” shaped temple of Garagay (Rimac valley), a monumental complex that was occupied among 1,500-600 B.C. (Ravines et al. 1982: 161). Two of  them came from a well of offerings located in the atrium in the right arm of the complex.                 

Later, in Cupisnique culture (1,300-600 B.C.) from the Formative period
(1,800 - 200 B.C), the Spondylus appears with more presence in: 

a) Sculptural bottles of ceramic with representations of Spondylus and Spondylus-Strombus galeatus (Alva 1986:146). 

b) Beads or "chaquiras" for the production of necklaces in funerals contexts. 


Figure 3:
This is a Bottle from the Cupisnique culture and is in the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History; Peru, Lima

Discoveries of devices worked in Spondylus in a tomb in Cerro Blanco (Cajamarca): There are square badges and beads that show bigger sophistication and care in their elaboration, one of the badges is decorated with a face of Chavin’s features.
(Terada and Onuki 1988: 6, Fig. 18, plate 6).   


In Chavín of Huántar (1,200-400 B.C.) it appears as: 

a) Fragments in the “Caracolas Gallery” of the “Old Temple” (Lumbreras 1,989:160), as well as it is represented in bone and lithic pins ( named "tupus"), besides a bead in the “Gallery of the Offerings” (Lumbreras 1993). 

b) Worked in bead forms in the residential areas outside of the temples, prepared in group under the floor and in a contention wall, not in midden contexts. (Burger 1998:203,239).  

c) Represented among the engravings of Tello’s Obelisk. Also, a sculpture called the “supreme deity” that decorates the patio of the “New Temple”, takes in its right hand a Strombus and in the left one a Spondylus (Burger 1992:174). The small court of this same sector shows the figure of an anthropomorphic monkey holding a Strombus. Also, two characters recorded in stone that decorate the sunken circular square blow shell trumpets Strombus sp. or “pututos” (Burger 1992; Lumbreras 1989:164). 

Figure 4: Tello’s Obelisk of Chavín de Huántar.
Figure 4a & b:
Detail of the Spondylus and  Strombus designs. 

The earliest discovery of Strombus galeatus in the Andean region corresponds to a clipped, refined and perforated fragment found in the Level IV of Telarmachay (age range C14 without range between 2,470-1,730 B.C.) (Lavallée et al. 1982:100). Another specimen was in the tomb of a woman sacrificed in Punkurí, located in the valley of Nepeña, nor-central peruvian coast (Tello 1967:68). Complete specimens of Strombus galeatus are recorded in: 

a) Chiclayo, north coast of Peru: the “Strombus Pickman”, with chavinoid designs. 

b) An almost complete specimen belonging to the collection of the National Museum of  Peru, that has as decoration an open hand, perhaps pre Chavín style. Unknown origin.

c) Kuntur Wasi, Cajamarca, three complete specimens of the Tomb 1, one of them with decoration chavin-like (Onuki 1995:15.,16. Plate 7, 10 and 11). 

d) The recent discovery of twenty specimens in the “Caracolas Gallery” of Chavín de Huántar made by John Rick (2001), whose antecedent made the discovery of some Strombus pieces in a previous excavation (Lumbreras 1989:160).

Rick has affirmed that based on other remains of Strombus, the number of specimens would have reached 29 (Rick 2002). All these Strombus shells were used to manufacture huayllaquepas” “pututos” or trumpets, and they were intimately linked to the religious ceremonials of the Chavín culture (Burger 1992:200). It is necessary to affirm that, up to now, this is the biggest group of Strombus galeatus in the whole precolonial archaeology of Peru. 


Figure 5 a & b:
Strombus galeatus with pre-Chavín designs.
This artifact is called a Huallaquepa or pututo
(a type of pre-Columbian trumpet) and it is from the
National Museum of Peru collection. 


In accordance with the evidences, during the Formative, both Spondylus princeps and Strombus galeatus were incorporated indeed inside the religion of these cultures in such way that they were represented clearly, and in the case of the Strombus they were acquired all as wholes. We can intend that the religious elite assumed them in all their meaning, making them transcend from objects that served as personal decoration or secondary ceremonial element, to become symbols of quality and they incorporated them in to their religion.

This feature would stay in different pre-Columbian societies in the Andes. Here we must indicate that after the Formative Strombus galeatus shells were rarely used to make designs or images. 

Also, in this period the discovery of two trumpets made of Malea ringens is documented in a funeral context of Huayurco, a site located in the oriental hillsides of the Andean region (county of Jaen, north higlands of Peru), between the mountain and the low lands of  Amazonia (Rojas Ponce 1969, lámina 2; 1985; Burger 1992:218). The Malea ringens is a species that can be gotten in the current coasts of Ecuador, however, its habitat can extend to Sechura, in the northern Peruvian department of Piura (Alamo V. and V. Valdivieso 1987; the author’s personal observation 2001). This species is not represented in the Formative iconography cultures in central Andes, and until now, any discovery of this type has not been documented.

Figure 6:
Huayllaquepas or trumpets of Malea ringens. This specimen came from Huayurco and is in the National Museum of Peru collection. 

During the Regional Developments period (ca. 200-650 A.D.), the presence of Spondylus princeps valves, rectangular badges, necklace and fronts in funeral contexts of Moche culture is frequent. Also, the Strombus galeatus maintained its importance like an element represented in the iconography of this culture (Bourget 1990), however, we point out that it is not found as offerings in funeral contexts.  

In the Lima culture of the central coast, scarce discoveries of Spondylus princeps are registered in circular and rectangular bead forms, but it is not represented in the iconography. This only happens in sculptural bottles of the Nievería style, toward the beginnings of the impact of the Huari culture in the region (ca. 650-750 A.D.) (Gorriti 2000:15).

In this sense, both for the quantity and for the representations, it is a notorious difference to that of the Moche culture. A singular example of Strombus galeatus comes from Huaquerones, a site with Lima occupation in the Rimac valley, however, the piece shows a figure with a clear filiation with Recuay culture, being able to be an exchange piece (Stumer 1957: 281, 284, Fig.14).

On the other hand, in “Huaca San Marcos” (or Aramburú) of Maranga complex (one of the biggest center of Lima culture) there was a specimen of Strombus peruvianus, in a ventral face down position, in one of the holes of post of the colonnades of trunks in squares at the summit of the pyramid (Gorriti 2000). This is one of the strange specimens of this species found in archaeological contexts of the Regional Developments in Central Andes.  

Similar cases happen in other important sites of the south coast, for example, Cahuachi, a great center of pilgrimage of the Nasca culture where there have been dozens of pieces of Spondylus partially worked in the “Room of the Posts” (Silverman 1993: 178).

They have also been found in the sector of “Old Town”where there were also badges of Spondylus associated with funeral contexts of the culture Huari (Gorriti 1992).  Although, we find a case of Spondylus fragment worked in a way that it shows it as a character running with a trophy head in it's hand. The head has been inlaid with an eye of turquoise. (see photo below)

Figure 7:
Nasca carved Spondylus fragment, length 4.5 cm. National Museum Collection.

On the other hand, in this period the first appearances of Conus fergusoni are documented in sites of Vicús culture like Loma Negra and Pampa Juárez, located in an ecosystem more linked to the tropical atmosphere of the extreme of Peruvian north, department of Piura (Gorriti 2000: 17).

Also, Moche culture continued with the use of Conus fergusoni as offering in funerals (for example in “Sipán Lord”, in Huaca Rajada) as well as representations in the iconography. This species of tropical mollusk has not been in contexts of the culture Lima or Nasca (Ibid.). 

Figure 8:
Conus fergusoni. Goblet made of Conus fergusoni.
National Museum collection.

Of the revision of the evidence, we arrive at the conclusion that for the period of the Regional Developments, the north coast of Peru was linked in a very near way to the areas of the Ecuadorian coast and habitat of the species of the molluscs here pointed out. A high fluency of very flowing exchange should exist among these areas.

In contrast, the central coast and south coasts were far from having an easy access to these exotic molluscs. We do not find massive offerings of Spondylus princeps valves and Conus fergusoni either, as well as neither Strombus galeatus among the remains of Lima or Nasca cultures . When beginning the impact of the culture Huari in the central coast the Spondylus begins to be represented in sculptural bottles of double pick and roasts bridge of style Nievería (d'Harcourt 1922: Planche  IV: 1, 7).  

Figure 9.
Nievería sculptural bottle with Spondylus representation . The valve has been polished and the thorns of the lip, like a decoration way has been left. Collection of the National Museum of the Peru.

To finish, we want to point out that future studies of these big tropical molluscs will not be reached if the specimens are not identified accurately and the contexts are not published. Archaeologists must repair in this class of evidence in a more careful way. 




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